Wednesday, February 27, 2013


It took me a long time to really feel comfortable in my new skin of being an academic and a parent. At my last post doc, I would feel apologetic about interrupting a skype session to put Epsilon back to sleep, or about only being available to meet in the evenings after his bed time.

I've always known that I shouldn't be apologetic. I've heard all the rhetoric about not explaining that I can't attend for family reasons, and just being point blank about having other appointments. Knowing doesn't imply feeling. I tried to follow all the "don't apologize for procreating" rules and watched what I said to colleagues, but that didn't change the fact that I felt apologetic.

I'm realizing that this is changing. I don't know if this is because I am changing, or I am interacting with a different set of colleagues, or something else completely. I feel no guilt saying I am available from 8:30-4 pm and 7-10 pm, knowing full well that chunks of this period are unthinkably early, or dinner time for my colleagues.

Last night, Epsilon came out of his bedroom and curled up asleep in my lap while I was mid meeting. It was nice being able to excuse myself, turn of the bedroom light and continue the conversation in hushed tones. It was even nicer when my colleague apologized for eating while skyping, I was able to give a rejoinder about snoring three year olds. Much of the credit goes to how comfortable I feel with this colleague, but I think I could now do this for people I keep a more arms length relationship with.

I think for me, confidence is not marked by when I can confidently excuse myself from an obligation without giving a reasons, but when I CAN be honest about what my life looks like, even in a mildly hostile environment.

I'm not all the way there, but it's good to see that I'm making progress.

*Epsilon is 3, and I'm just writing this post. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

A frustrated attempt at a funny Friday

Dinner with Epsilon is starting to become unpleasant. Motivating him to sit in his chair and eat before his food becomes ice cold and he is bored with the task of eating his risotto one grain of rice at a time is harder than I would have ever imagined. It usually ends in deadlines and warnings about watching his playtime disappear, and eventually threats about having to go to bed hungry. Not a pleasant sight. And then I read this about the sequester.
US transportation secretary Ray LaHood said sequestration “would force the FAA to undergo an immediate retrenchment of core functions.” He added that it “will be impossible to avoid significant employee furloughs” at the agency.

“The furlough of a large number of air traffic controllers and technicians will require a reduction in air traffic to a level that can be safely managed by the remaining staff,” LaHood wrote.
Aaah, lets add to the list of threats and warnings longer lines at airport security and fewer flights. It makes me wonder if Obama feels like he dealing with his daughters in their worst toddler years.

Emoticons. ... Sigh.  I'm old school. I remember getting to college and keeping in touch with high school friends via talk. Anyone else? I learned about emoticons pretty early, and like them in their text version. I really appreciate people who come up with clever ones. My thesis adviser, a bald man with a mustache and a beard often signs e-mails (:-{)} Brilliant! A friend's evil grin is >=]. A nice variation on the theme.

The animated emoticons strike me as .... unimaginative and restrictive.

And then I send the following bits of harmless mathematical expressions over skype to a colleague I keep a fairly formal relationship with.

(h)^2 = result

Nope... not hitting on you... just being stupid with the space bar.

Or how about

x=(\int (f) dy)

Right... I've completely lost it. Lets call it a day, shall we?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I would like to thank my partner for his patience during the writing of this [project] and Epsilon for the hours of playing monsters in tunnels with me he sacrificed, which he knows belong to him by right.

I do wonder why spouses are thanked for their patience, support and understanding, but not kids. In his own very real way, Epsilon supplies me with plenty of the first two, if not the third.

Monday, February 18, 2013


My move to University F has been accompanied by a ,huge productivity boost. Being physically  closer to collaborators and in a department that brings in lots of visitors working on closely related topics helps, it turns out. I'm not complaining. 

Before my productivity boost kicked in, I was talking to post doc at a different university about his new job. He mentioned that his PI required all the grad students and post docs in the group to come to the meeting each week with 4 pages of writing done over the week. This struck me as a little extreme. It's not quite the page a day silliness I've heard about writing a thesis, but it's close. 

My colleague assured me that it wasn't. Four pages of writing could be the 20 of the 40 page draft of the article you've been revising, or several pages of code you've been debugging, or 4 pages of speculative work that will eventually get scrapped, or a long series of technical e-mail exchanges with a colleague. The point was for him to see that you aren't getting stuck, spinning wheels and reading literature to pass the time, or getting bogged down by a problem. 

Being forced to write helps me clarify my thoughts, even though the process of writing things up in a clean understandable way seems like a waste of time until I've actually reached a milepost in the project. Then I can pause, summarize and organize my work in the form of bits on a disk. But this reluctance to write on my part leads me to chasing blind alleys for weeks until I get frustrated, step back, and see the flaw in my logic. 

My recent burst of productivity has meant that I've been writing a lot. I've been reaching the mileposts at which it is easy for me to write with some frequency. Being in the habit of writing is also causing me to get in the habit of writing up summaries of productive discussions with a collaborators. All of this writing that I'm doing is helping me keep a clear record of what progress I've made, and where various projects stand. 

This has me wondering... If I actually set myself the goal of 4 pages a week, when the dry spell inevitably comes again, will it help me keep myself organized and pushing through it?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Talking to shipwrights

I had my talk with the shipwrights today. Many thanks to everyone who wrote in earlier this week with ideas and encouragement about how, as an expert in rope bridges over ravines, I should talk to shipwrights, without trying to be an expert raft maker.

Between your advice, and my partner's, I settled on pitching at a level such that if the general level of discourse at the department seminar were much lower, I wouldn't be very happy. I gave the talk to my partner, who said that he was able to follow along at a level that he would be happy following along for a talk not in his subject area. Admittedly he has heard me give talks on this subject several times, but his is in a very different field.

I think the talk went rather well. The few raft makers in the department stopped me a few times with good questions. Afterwards, one asked me to go back over a salient point. One of the rowboat experts asked me how my work could apply to his, and I had to answer honestly that I didn't know if it could, but that I think there are tools he uses that could be very useful to me. The undergrads came up afterwards and asked a bunch of questions in private. They were a good group of kids, and fun to talk to. One of the raftmakers mentioned that he used to work on dock design 20 years ago where he saw connections to my talk. I pointed out that I have rope bridge making colleagues who collaborate on cutting edge research with dock makers today. In hanging out afterwards we talked about the differences between the education system at Univerity E and the US, and I got to hear professors talk frankly about their frustrations and joys.

As I said, the talk went relatively well.

The this is not an interview (TM) lunch beforehand, however, was a different story. To be fair, you should know that they are considering me to replace a retiring professor teaching galley mechanics, a course I can teach at the undergraduate level with a little work. However, I have made very clear that I will not leave my research in rope bridges to study galleys. The meeting was preluded with a strong emphasis on how they would be considering me for this job in order to be nice to my partner's department and several reiterations of the fact that if other people are more qualified then the job would go to them. Much of the lunch was a discussion between what I imagine are two of the important people on the hiring committee (no raft makers) debating about whether they should apply for a particular type of grant. This was interspersed with some small talk, a few questions from me about University E and an emphasis on how I need several top ranked articles. My publication is not as strong as I would like it to be. I mostly lost a year for health complications during my pregnancy and aftermath. I am used to hearing about my weak record from the top schools where I have applied for postdocs. Thererfore it did not occur to me until I was back home that what they were asking for would have been a reasonable request from the very top departments in the field. In short, the entire lunch made me feel like I was in the position of supplicant, or worse, asking to be pitied rather than a normal job applicant. In short, they seemed to signal that either they are fairly inept at conducting interviews or they don't want me. On the whole, this looks bad for this being an avenue for family reunification, which is too bad.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Not a job talk

I'm giving a talk at University E later this week. Since University E is weak in my particular sub field, I've been asked to talk in the general seminar. This means that I should expect to give a talk to faculty in the audience who would not have had to take the same quals as me had we gone to the same graduate school.

This alone would not be a problem. I have few aspects of my work that have some very pretty pictures associated to them. Usually, the audience coming to a talk with a given advertised abstract consist of people who are at least vaguely interested in the subject matter, so I can assume some amount of common background. After all, it's not really worth several research hours on my end to write the talk, or the combined several research hours of the audience to have me talk if NO ONE is interested in my research. I try to make the talk pretty, and then talk to one or two people in the audience.

But a divergence in interest is not the only complicating factor. University E may have a position opening up soon. I have many many many mixed feelings about this, but there's no point in dwelling on it if there isn't actually a job to be had. It is well known to the department in University E that I would interested in interviewing for this position should it exist. I've been told (as if I needed reminding) that I should treat this seminar presentation as a job talk. I should expect a lot of people in the audience from the department's strong sub-field, who have little interest in my research. I have  no idea how to proceed.

In grad school, I heard a lot of advice about not trying to be something I am not. I should not try to talk about things that I am not an expert on. If I am an expert in the construction of rope bridges over windy ravines, I should not try to sell myself as an expert raft maker when talking to a department of shipwrights, even though many of the tools are similar to those of raft makers.

This should be a point for me to shine in my own subfield. But I'm terrified of giving a talk that falls flat  to most of the audience. I am not talking to one or two people in the audience. I'm trying to impress everyone.

I spent all day yesterday trying to write this talk, and succeeding in making one slide (beyond the title). Any advice would be appreciated.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


in the stray moments of a passing day-
between paying the bus fare
and finding a seat-
I find myself staring
at the candy colored currency that occupies my billfold
and the shiny brass coins of this foreign land.

I long for the certainty of the greenback of my childhood.
The unassuming grey green ink,
all cut to the same size;
the thin grey disks of different diameters,
that my fingers recognize without my fumbling eyes.

Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson,
accompanying me through the streets
and into shops,
exchanging hands at the farmer's market, yard sale, for the Craig's List find.
I'll give you a bit of history I learned in school
if you'll give me the comfort of old habits,
known foods, and familiar culture,
both the good and the bad.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Towards feeling Permanence

Last summer, I wrote how the lack of keys makes me feel sad and uncertain, un-rooted. I don't have a home to tether myself to.

I am going to be in His Town for several weeks now, due to the semester break. Unlike winter break, we don't have any traveling planned for this period. Instead, I have dreams of stability. To help me along, I bought a weekly bus pass this week- a promise of commuting with my family every day to share my partner's office space - and put my bike in the shop in an attempt to get back to the workout schedule I had in the states.

Sometimes, its just the little things, but boy do they matter.