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Montreal: Moving Madness

A cautionary tale of busy friends and grumpy families.

What you are about to read is a true story.  I know because I was there.

The date:  June 15 at a family supper.  At the table, a student, a kid brother, mom, and dad:

Student: “Sooo, I was wondering what everyone is doing on Canada day.”

Kid Brother: “NO! NO! NO!  I’m not doing it! I told you last year, and the year before and the year before that I was never going to help you move again.”

Mother: “Well, you know I can’t help because I wrecked my knees.  Sorry.”

Dad: “Look, this is the fourth year in a row. This is getting ridiculous.”

The date: June 25. Out with friends

Student: “Sooo, I thought it would be great if everyone came over to my apartment on Canada Day.  I’ll supply pizza and beer.”

Friends:  Total Silence.

Only in Quebec, they say. In the end Dad is there with the van, kid brother, very pissed off, and one friend. Only in June, in Quebec does the offer of pizza and beer result in lost friends.  What is it with this annual relocation of a city? A 2013 source estimated that about 115,000 of Montreal’s 1.6 million residents relocate every year (Austin, 2013). I know because I was there.

Why does 7% of Canada’s second largest city move on the same day?  Even if you could afford it, the possibility of getting a moving truck or van is zero. Then there are the problems of all those abandoned pets at the SPCA.  And the old furniture on the curb. There has to be a reason.  So what is it?


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Some (Random) Things that Uplift Me: An Anecdote

Random squirrel posing at McGill university. Photo taken by Yours Truly.

Random squirrel posing at McGill university. Photo taken by Yours Truly.


The Dilemma

I am the kind of person who gets annoyingly bored by the mundane and so I have developed an eye for those little obscure details in our surroundings. For example, after many months of observation throughout various seasons, I have noticed that there is a small conserved population of black squirrels that live specifically in that courtyard on the Atwater/Sherbrooke intersection, right at the 144 bus stop. That was the first time I had ever seen a black squirrel and probably the only place I have ever seen them in. I know black squirrels exist elsewhere, but please don’t burst my bubble and tell me otherwise. You see, it’s very simple: squirrels make me happy. The way they hop; search for food; naively miss the piece of walnut you just threw right in front of their scrawny paws; the way they stand up on their two hind legs while they’re checking you out (I mean, look at that guy in the picture, really!); the way their bushy tail is, well, bushy; the way they chase each other and interact with each other and the occasional human.

I’m about to pull a Miss Potter here and tell you a tale about black and gray squirrels. The only difference between me and Miss Potter is that I will actually be in the story – just very briefly. But let me do this properly like the good ole scientist that I am.


Small World: Conference Season Begins

Last week I attended the Genomes to Biomes meeting, held right here in beautiful downtown Montréal. This was the first ever joint meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution-Société canadienne d’écologie et d’écolution (CSEE/SCEE), the Canadian Society of Zoologists-Société candadienne de zoologie (CSZ/SCZ) and the Society of Canadian Limnologists-Société canadienne de limnologie (SCL). A lot of acronyms for one meeting!

So what does one do at a scientific meeting? Well, for the most part, you talk.


After the talks comes more talking. The closing banquet of Genomes to Biomes, at the Sucrerie de la Montagne, May 29, 2014.



Go Habs… Go!!! An evening (and not just any) at the Bell Centre.

Tuesday. May 28th. 14:12 minutes into the 2nd period, 21,273 go silent. It is the fifth game in the NHL Eastern Conference Final, and the Montréal Canadiens are up against the New York Rangers. In this 14th minute of the second period of the fifth game, the Rangers have tied the game (again), back from trailing 4-1. The Bell Centre is less than amused. And for a moment, the fear – that fear – is back. The fear that the Habs will not, after all, make it tonight. If the Rangers win, the Habs go home – or rather stay home.

"So how do they etch the symbols into the ice?" ...

“So how do they etch the symbols into the ice?” …

 But they didn’t.


Indecision Québec 2014

PLQ Corrumpu

Anti PLQ election graffiti in MontréalParti BourguoisAnti PQ election graffiti in Montréal.

In case you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks (or under a thesis), you should know that today, Monday April 7, 2014 is election day in Québec. Across the province, people are making their voices heard in what has been an interesting (to say the least) election campaign.

This year, it was easier than ever for students to vote, as we could vote on campus over a period of four days. As a resident of a riding outside of Montreal, this made life easier for me, as I’m sure it did for many other students. I actually cast my ballot last week, without trouble. Then again, I have been resident here for more nearly 7 years; I pay taxes here, I have a Québec driver’s licence, a RAMQ card, and I own a house in Trois-Rivières. I’m already on the list of registered voters. I walked up to the polling station, presented my identification, and was handed a list of candidates for my riding, marked my ballot, placed it in a sealed envelope and went on my merry way.


A silent witness

[Disclaimer: Aspects of this post may cause emotional discomfort]

Monday began like an ordinary day. My alarm clock forced me to greet the morning at five-thirty. I responded to e-mails and penciled a to-do list over three cups of coffee. I squeezed myself onto the ridiculously crammed metro, caught the bus, and unlocked the door to my lab about thirty minutes later. It was an ordinary day of collecting and analyzing neuroscientific data, of meeting my supervisor, and of writing bits of my dissertation. I was busy, focused and pretty reserved all day long. The afternoon was also quite ordinary; I waited for rush-hour to subside a little and left work around six-thirty, in order to have a less stressful time with overcrowded transportation. I recognized the bus driver, got a seat towards the back like I usually do, and was at Sherbrooke metro in fifteen minutes – just like any ordinary day.

When I pushed the heavy door to enter the metro station, I noticed two police-offers were shooing a man toward the exit. “Outside!” one officer yelled in English (which, I remember, surprised me more than the fact that an itinerant was being asked not to loiter). The man began to retaliate, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying, as I was listening to my iPod. “Outside!” the officer yelled again, and added something that sounded like a threat to intervene if the man didn’t comply. I passed the busker who was singing joyously with her guitar, passed the turnstile as my STM pass emitted its routine “beep” to let me through, and walked slowly down the stairs to the platform. As I walked down, I could hear a man shouting something below. A different man than the one they had just ushered out of the station, obviously, but someone who sounded equally distraught. I removed my iPod and continued down the steps. He was loud and sounded upset, like he was venting about something. He did not sound like he was well. Before I even got to the bottom of the stairs, I could tell roughly where he was standing, due to the converging glances of passengers waiting on the track. Everyone was silent – listening, watching, pretending not to listen, pretending not to watch.


White Night

(credits: photo - Yunpeng Li, 'giffing' - me

(credits: photo – Yunpeng Li, ‘giffing’ – me)


Future McGill Graduate Student?

Photo by Maryna Lesoway.

In the last several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with prospective students who are interested in joining our lab here at McGill. When considering starting graduate studies, particularly when starting a doctorate, it is important not just to check out the website of your potential supervisor and future lab to see that your research interests line up. It’s just as important to meet your potential supervisor, to check in with the students who are currently members of the research group, and to be sure that your personal styles are a good fit. Starting graduate studies is a decision that will make a big change in your life, and it is important to be aware of issues that could arise during the course of your studies.  After all, you will be working together for the next few years! (more…)

Études Internationales Près de Chez Vous

Joyeux nouvel an Chinois!  (source: www.auston.edu.sg)

Joyeux nouvel an Chinois!
(source: www.auston.edu.sg)

Tout d’abord: n’ajustez pas votre écran. Ce que vous lisez est bien en Français.

Après toutes ces années ‘French is back on the blog’!

Aujourd’hui, je veux parler de la richesse culturelle que l’on trouve à McGill. Pourquoi étudier à l’étranger quand le monde peut venir à vous?

Les débats culturels contemporains sonnent toujours étranges à mes oreilles; à chaque fois que je rencontre des personnes de pays lointains j’en sors plus riche. Leurs différences débutent des conversations passionantes.


Until the Fat Lady Sings

The Archetypal Opera Singer, as rendered by the author

The Archetypal Opera Singer, as rendered by the author

Many people regard opera as elitist, boring, and on the wane. A relic of past grandiosity that is out of touch with present aesthetics and popular culture. Something that soon will go the way of the dodo or Hostess snack cake

As the saying goes, however, the future of opera is not so easily prophesized. The “fat lady” might in fact be singing, but it most certainly is not over. (more…)

Um novo ano, um novo desafio! Or: how to learn languages for cheap in Montreal.

Which language will it be?
Image from rgbstock.com

Two days ago, Kristina wrote a great post, reviewing both her year just past, and the one to come, all in an upbeat and confident mood. And, Kristina, you wished us all that the year “be filled with dreams come true” – thank you for the good wishes, and may your year turn out as you intend to, too!

Speaking of dreams, though, here’s a personal one for 2014: if all works out well, this will be the year I learn Brazilian Portuguese, for the sake of my thesis (on Brazil), for related travel plans, and for the general fun of it. But how does one get started with such a project? The paths and possibilities towards new linguistic skills can be bewildering, and they took me some time to sort through before I even said my first word in Portuguese. I’ve since found my way, however, and thus proudly present the clumsily titled “2014 starter’s kit to learning languages for cheap in Montreal” – with my very own special recommendation at the end.


All I really need to know, I learned from other graduate students

I’m an R hero now!

Yesterday, I participated in an R workshop hosted by the Québec Centre for Biodiversity Science (better known to members as QCBS, CSBQ pour les membres francophones). For those who aren’t familiar, R is a free, open-source computer language that allows you to manipulate data, perform statistical analyses, and make pretty plots and graphs for publications, all under the same umbrella. I’ve been hearing about the wonders of R for years from other graduate students, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to actually learn it. And now that I have some data that I’m trying to produce pretty graphics of for publications, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn something new! The workshop itself, Zero to R Hero,  was led by members of the R Montreal user group, who have taken it upon themselves to spread the good news of R to those of us (myself included) who are just starting out. Like any new computer language, there is a steep learning curve, and getting going can be intimidating. The idea of the workshop was to help you to get over the first hurdles and to be able to use R for your own research.


Writing about (not) writing


IMG_0005There have been a number of discussions in this blog about writing theses, papers, essays, proposals, and other documents within academia. To switch gears a little, I will be writing about NOT writing. (In the same moment of writing that last sentence, I just realized how haphazardly it reads and decide to use it as title for this (written) blog entry.)

You will probably agree if I say that most of us are writing all the time. Apart from the classical documents I mentioned, there are other occasions for writing: emails, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, and many more.


Teaching at CEGEPs: How to apply and what to expect

For those who are completing a master’s degree, a PhD, or a Post doc, and are passionate about teaching, working at a CEGEP might be a viable career strategy.

Going to CEGEP is a rite of passage for Quebec students hoping to go to universities in Quebec before the age of 21. Established in 1969, these institutions were designed to make post-secondary education more accessible, and to prepare Quebec students for university.  But as someone who experienced it first hand, I can tell you that completing a DEC at a CEGEP means more than the equivalent of your last year of high school and your first year of university.


Removing the Dust of Daily Life


Ermahgerd: The author as Frida Kahlo

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

– Pablo Picasso

Over the years I’ve found that I increasingly spend more and more time on my computer, and have less and less time to devote to art projects. I used to paint, sketch, and visit art museums constantly. Now, my schedule is too full given my academic workload, and extracurricular physical and social activities. Further, the high cost of art material and difficulty in transporting such material has meant that I have regrettably not done anything for a very, very long time.

Thus, much of my creative urges have found a home in the corners of my academic work. Graphs and tables can be beautiful. Fieldwork photos demand editing to maximize their aesthetic poignancy. Even spending hours composing PowerPoints was refreshing. Still, my soul seemed to be getting lost in the dust piled on by daily life.


Three Hidden Gems Near Campus

McGill is home to a great number of international students. 38% of graduate students at McGill are non-Canadian citizens. It can be hard for newcomers (or old timers!) to discover and experience those great activities that are sometimes only known to the locals. Add to that research and classes, and sometimes one can completely miss the various cultural events on or around campus.

Lucky for you, I am a native. so let me share with you three little gems that are typical of McGill and Montreal this time of year.

The Salon du Livre de Montréal Édition 2013

The Salon du Livre de Montréal Édition 2013
(Credits: Yunpeng Li)


Autumn Blues?

Fall is a much maligned season. It is the messenger of cold things to come; the dead leaves seem to say in a Starkian voice: “Winter is coming”! If literary works about the season are any indicator (Blake’s “To Autumn”, Keats’ “To Autumn”, Dickinson’s -shorter- “Autumn”), it is the most melancholic time of year. The daylight wanes and the temperature scurries away alongside it.

Given that, it is easy to feel the autumn blues. To be depressed. Another summer has gone by. For a transitional season that is a little summer and a little winter, it doesn’t seem to show its sunny side up much. But I am here to show you otherwise! Fall is in fact my favourite season. Let me tell you how to survive it and perhaps even thrive in it.


The risks and benefits of universal narratives

Classics buffs and economics enthusiasts rejoice! There is a play on at the Theatre d’Aujourdui that is well worth your attention, and quite relevant to stigma and graduate research.

Luc Picard and Sophie Desmarais perform at Le Théatre d'Aujourd'hui. Photo by Jérémie Battaglia.

Luc Picard and Sophie Desmarais perform at Le Théatre d’Aujourd’hui. Photo by Jérémie Battaglia.

Set in 2008 as the US markets begin to crash, the play tells the story of hedge fund agent (Luc Picard) and his relationship with a junior analyst (Sophie Desmarais)—an anxious mathematician with poor social skills who, after going through months of therapy, is learning how to communicate beyond numbers and models.

Her favourite new communication tool? Epic Similes. (Here I mean “epic” in the Homeric or Epic Poetry kind of sense, not the overused version my teenage cousins use to describe their youtube channels.) (more…)

Sur la photographie de rue

Excuse my French. Literally. But there’s a reason for it…

Have you ever discovered a sign, a shop, or even a building that you’ve never seen before, despite having walked by it countless times? I have. Everyone I know has. But why is this? Simple: modern city life is too fast-paced, too focused, too goal-oriented (when was the last time you wandered on the streets with absolutely no destination in mind?) for us to take in all the information and process it. That, my friends, is when street photography comes in. (more…)

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