The wages of science

As my faithful reader knows, I’m skeptical of the whole notion of altruism. People get all kinds of rewards for giving of themselves, from public acknowledgment to private satisfaction to, in some cases, actual monetary gain. While I had plenty of selfless and selfish reasons to volunteer for a study of diet and Alzheimer’s, I might not have signed up if there hadn’t been a modest stipend.

The more I learned about this study, the less altruistic I felt. Here are some of the sacrifices it would require:

  • Consuming animal products
  • Buying and eating frozen meals
  • Being subjected to two (2) lumbar punctures
  • Letting paternalistic researchers get away with learning something about my DNA that they would not share with me

Not to mention the 15 hours of my time that I would be giving these folks. For all my trouble and compromised principles I would receive a grand total of $220—$20 for the screening visit and then $100 for each study visit. Even the paltriness of the pay, however, wasn’t quite enough to deter me. What eventually tipped the scales against participation was not the amount but rather the form of the payment: a credit card that looks and acts like a debit card (although the consent form had specified that payment would be in the form of a check).

I thought this method of payment would be a minor inconvenience. After the screening visit, I took my $20 “gift card” to the Goodwill store, where my $13.89 purchase went right through (after the clerk reran the transaction (after I explained that it wasn’t in fact a debit card)). A week later I returned to the store and tried to use the balance on the card to pay for about $10 worth of merchandise.

“Your card has been declined,” the clerk said.

Hmm. I had thought that if the purchase amount exceeded the gift card balance, the card would be exhausted and then I would pay the overage in cash. But no, this card required that I know precisely what the balance was beforehand, so that the clerk could charge my card for that exact amount. What a pain! It was too late to do anything but pay the total in cash, but I resolved to figure out what the balance was so that I could use that amount next time I had occasion to buy something.

I won’t bore you with the ensuing exasperation of trying to remember the balance, trying to remember to use the card, and then trying to actually use it. (I even briefly revisted elementary algebra to calculate the pre-tax amount I would need to spend to exhaust the balance. Fun!) Suffice it to say that this form of payment turns out to be way more trouble than it’s worth. I also find it offensive that instead of giving participants a check or cash, which they can use to pay the bills that drove them to donate their aging, unemployed bodies to science, the researchers encourage us to spend, spend, spend, and only on items that can be bought with plastic.

Even if the payment had been in cash, I don’t think $100 per spinal tap would have been enough for this non-altruist.



I never much cared for the music of Jimi Hendrix. As with many of our so-called musical icons, I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  Of course I would never admit this in polite Seattle society (is there any other kind?), because here Hendrix is a god. The latest temple to him opened officially today, and naturally I went. Naturally, because the park is just a few blocks down the road from my house.

I didn’t stay long. The music (recorded Hendrix hits sandwiched between performances by white-boy blues bands) was loud; the food was minimal; the chalk-art contest entries were mostly lame; the merch was overpriced and inessential (I assume; I didn’t actually look at it). And there was nothing else to do except admire the park’s artistic features and installations, which I didn’t do, because I forget to look at stuff. So after a few minutes I trudged back home.

Yes, I am a blatant opportunist. If an event happens in my neighborhood, I’ll consider going, but if it’s a few miles or buses away, I’ll pass (unless someone I know is going and invites me along). Similarly, if someone offers me food or drink, I will probably take it, but I usually find that it’s way too much trouble to procure and prepare my own. And if someone offers me a job, well, I would be crazy not to take it, right? Especially after years of fruitless searching and interviewing.

Not that this has actually happened to me, but I think it might have, after an interview I had a few days ago, if I hadn’t preemptively squelched the possibility. The job would have been half time, at $16 per hour, which seemed just about right to me. Unfortunately it was in Seattle, where I ostensibly spend just a few months per year, and where I will no longer have a place to live in a couple of months. In consultation with my non-Seattle-dwelling spouse I decided that the nature of the work (managing preliminary lien notices for a law firm) didn’t warrant a complete relocation.

So I told the lawyers not to consider me. Chances are that they wouldn’t have offered me the job anyway, but to take myself out of the running, when the one thing I claim to want is a job, makes no sense. I could have made the situation work; it might have turned into the best possible situation for me. My living and working in Seattle could also be the best thing for George the cat, who, after we all move out of the house in a month or two, may not have a home.

In the last 10 days I’ve also interviewed for two geezer jobs at the EPA. The geezer recruiter seemed to like me after the first interview; she was very  friendly and later invited me to interview for the second job. After my disastrous performance at that interview, however, she was quick to get away from me, and I don’t expect I’ll hear from her again.

When I was 11 or 12 (I think), my family visited a friend of my parents’ in Woods Hole. She lived in a musty cottage in the woods, and there were lots of musty books to read, including one that I think was called Opportunity. It may have had orange binding, and it may have been about the adventures of a young boy. In any case I found it fascinating enough (or there was so little else for me to do there) that I read the whole thing. I identified strongly with the young man who took advantage of whatever opportunities arose as he made his way in the world.

Maybe I’ve made up half this reminiscence out of jumbled bits of brain fluff. In any case the book, or at least its title, made quite an impression on me. To this day I prefer reading and daydreaming about life to actually living it, so maybe it’s just as well that I’m not inflicting myself on yet another employer.



Let us entertain us

A century or three ago, people had drawing rooms. salons, or other large rooms for entertaning guests in their homes. Even when the room and home were of modest size, there was usually a piano, or at least a spinet, at which members of the household or their friends would play music and sing. People often had gatherings at which amateur or professional musicians would play to an appreciative audience of friends and acquaintances.

I admit that my impression of homes of yore is based mainly on literature and movies. But I have also known actual live people who hosted concerts in their homes for friends and family. In fact, there’s a whole house concert industry now. Unfortunately though, most houses no longer have space to devote to music. Living rooms are dominated by so-called entertainment centers, for consuming electronic media. With no performer-friendly home venues, what’s a mediocre musician to do?

Luckily, public music performance has gotten easier than ever.  There are dozens of bars and other music venues in any medium- to large-size city, and many of them book performers for almost every night. Tonight in Seattle, for example, The Stranger list 93 music events. Some feature big-name performers, a few are outside the city limits, and some offer DJs rather than live music. But there are still several dozen venues where one can hear local acts. And if you aren’t lucky enough to book a show at a venue, there are plenty of street corners and other busking locales.

You may be wondering, “Who goes to hear all this music?” Having been to many sparsely attended shows in the course of my music-fan life, I can tell you that in most cases the crowd consists primarily of the band’s friends and family. In other words, it’s as if people had temporarily converted a public establishment into their own private listening room.

Last night I attended a show where three bands played in succession. Two of my daughter’s friends made up half of the the middle band. During their time slot the audience numbered about 30. If you subtract the members of the other bands on the bill (say 8 people) and the few friends of those bands that cared enough to pay attention to a band they didn’t know (say another 8), that leaves maybe 14 people who had come specifically to see the second band, or about 3.5 friends or relatives per musician. And most of those 14 audience members are musicians whose own bands may be playing at a different venue tonight.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this scenario. The democratization of music, writing, and other forms of expression is the new normal, even while it’s a throwback to the days when people confined their amateur efforts to private drawing rooms. As robots and computers take over our less creative jobs, we’ll still have these occupations all to ourselves, for a while anyway.