Sunday, May 29, 2016

Business travel

One downside of moving down under is that it takes a 14 hour flight plus a 3 hour layover plus a long connecting flight to attend major conferences and events for work, either in Europe or North America. I just got back from such a trip, and I am tired.

What do you do with that 14 hour flight? Well, I know you're supposed to try to sleep, but when it leaves around 9am, you can use it instead to scroll through all the movies available and watch international flicks you wouldn't think of watching otherwise. And you can write the 2nd draft of the talk you are going to give at the conference. And you can revise that paper that you were supposed to revise last week. You can do all this and watch three movies and eat dinner and breakfast and get up to pee about 17 times. You can!

One of the movies I watched on the way out was "Still Alice," about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's disease. I then spent the rest of the trip discovering that I must also have Alzheimer's disease. I have all sorts of symptoms.

(1) I couldn't find words I was looking for. Like "monotreme" to describe egg laying mammals. I just couldn't find it.

(2) After three days of talks at the conference, feeling pretty good about my ability to stay awake and alert so far, a colleague and I were asked in a Skype meeting with England how the conference was going, and what had people spoken about? I drew a complete blank. My colleague, however, began listing speakers and main themes. And I decided I have Alzheimer's disease.

(3) In the middle of another talk, this same colleague, sitting next to me, leaned over and showed me a research paper with a result that was similar to the topic of the talk.

"That looks like a really great result," I whispered. "Whose is it?"

"Uh, yours.... It's from a paper we wrote together."


(4) I accidentally left my snugly fleece jacket in my checked luggage. Cold! And then I realized I had somehow neglected to pack the power supply cable for my laptop, after digging through my bag and being unable to find it. Luckily I dug again a few minutes later and found it actually was there, under the water bottle, but that doesn't convince me that I'm not losing my mind.

The highlight of the trip by far was the weekend in Washington DC.

It was actually significantly cheaper to fly from Providence to Washington DC over the weekend and take the train to Philly than to fly direct to Philly and stay in the more expensive hotel. So I spent the weekend visiting my brother, my brother's wife, and their sweet two-year-old.

And crazy of crazy,  the day before I arrived I got a message from said brother letting me know that their second child had been born early. So I also got to meet the newborn.

Here are some pictures I took with my phone. In the first, I didn't really want to be in the picture, but the 2-year-old wanted to see the screen while I took the shot. So it had to be a selfie.

And then he wanted to see Daddy on the screen. So I obliged by taking a fuzzy picture.

It was pouring rain when we went to visit mom and the new baby in the hospital. Fun times.

And here's the new guy.

Also with the other boys in his family.

I didn't take any pictures of my sister-in-law with the phone camera because she was either in the hospital, or sleeping when I was playing with the phone. Because dude, she had just been through childbirth. I did take pictures that included her as well, only I used their camera, not mine, so I have nothing to post here. Sorry.

Anyway, two weeks of work and one fun weekend. And lots and lots of time in airplanes and airports. It is good to be home. I hope I can sleep again sometime soon.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Last primary mothers day

Australia celebrates mothers day in May, just like the US. Yesterday in church we had the usual mothers day events, with primary children coming to the front of the room to sing.

My child was the tallest. That's because he's the oldest. That's because he is aging out of the primary program... today. It was his last time going up to the front to sing.


He complained so bitterly about going up.

"Why do I have to go? It's so embarrassing. I'm too old for it."

But he went. He stood there on the right side, taller than all the other children, and at first he at least tried to mouth the words with everyone else, but by the second verse was just standing there looking uncomfortable.

I did that myself in a primary program when I was his age, and so I empathize with him -- while simultaneously feeling completely justified in sending him up.

I remember his very first time singing in primary on a mothers day, because I wrote about it, back when I was a new blogger. It was a memorable event, with singing and flowers and little boy cuteness:
That was in 2008, when the little boy was three. And now he has turned from 11 to 12. Eight years is all we get, mothers. Just eight years with the little ones singing in mothers day programs. I know in my head that eight years goes quickly, but the speed of these past eight years boggles my mind. If these eight years have passed so fast, it means the next eight will be even faster, and so on and so on, and I am old. Hunched over and hobbling, with jowls and double chins and deep droopy bags under my eyes. Sitting in a room that smells like urine, but I can't smell it, fussing over my food, wishing that the great-grandchildren would visit, but not for too long because they are wild and might knock over my tacky glass stuff.

Well whatever. I guess I'll take it.

Happy 12, little guy.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Height and weight

One problem with moving countries is that I no longer know how much I weigh, and I don't know how tall I am.

It isn't always true that moving countries causes you to lose track of your height and weight. It only happened to me because I switched to the metric system. I know in my head what the metric system is. I just don't have a good intuitive sense of what any of the measures mean.

That's not completely true. I've figured out by now what temperature feels like in centigrade, and I'm very proud of myself for that accomplishment. Good start, me!

But I really don't have a good sense of what a kilogram is, or how many centimeters wide is a wall. I wanted to hang a new white board in my office. When we measured the wall, I gave a number that was off  by a factor of ten, and the woman helping me laughed. She has a good intuitive sense of what a centimeter means. And then she looked at me in pity. "You don't really know centimeters, do you?"

No, I don't. PhD in mathematics, and can't measure the length of a wall.

In teaching, I used to have this really great example of limits in which the average speed of a bicycle increases and increases as you approach a certain value. But my speed was in miles per hour, and that is meaningless to students here. I had to make up new numbers in kilometers per hour. I hope the numbers I made up were reasonable, in the unreasonable way that made the example funny when I presented it in miles per hour. Humor is different in the metric system.

And recently, I popped a hole in the toe of my good pair of black tights, so it was time to get a new pair. I happened to be in the city centre looking for birthday presents, and saw the wall of tights and remembered to look for myself. But tights are sold by height and weight. Standing there, against the wall, looking at all the numbers on the chart of sizes, I realised that I have no idea how much I weigh, or how tall I am.

They don't sell tights in queen size, or king or jack or ace. The options were tall, extra tall, and medium. I do know that I am rather tall for a woman, so I was pretty sure I should buy tall or extra tall. But which? Ladies on the left of the chart don't need extra tall, the chart said, unless their height is at the very bottom. All ladies on the right of the chart need extra tall, whether their height is at the top or middle or bottom. And those in the middle have to take extra care picking between their sizes.

Since I have no idea where my numbers fit into the chart, I took a wild guess and purchased extra tall.

Just to make sure they fit, I'll wear my five inch platform heals tomorrow so that I definitely fit in the category at the very bottom of the chart, no matter what. Except I still won't know how many centimeters those five inches add.

Maybe I'll ask google what my height is in centimeters, and my weight in kilograms. I've done that before, thinking that next time, I will know for sure. But it doesn't stick in my head, because kilograms and centimeters are still meaningless. I'll just buy extra tall and cross my fingers.

Friday, May 6, 2016


I recently submitted an application for a fellowship. The proposal had to be written in Australian English. Which seems to be more similar to English English than to US English. For example, you switch all words ending in ize to end in ise. Except those that are mostly ize, or those that aren't. Organise, recognise, size, wise.

And add extra u's to certain words. Colour, favour, neighbourhood.

I got feedback from an external grant review company on my proposal, and I sure hope the school didn't pay a lot of money for that, because it was pretty worthless. One comment they made was that I needed to be consistent with my spelling. I had to take care not to leave all those American-spelled words hanging around. I didn't realise there were any left. So I ran a search and there was one lone organize left instead of organise, and everything else was Australian.

And meanwhile, after spending a page (out of only eight) describing this really cool 150 year old problem that I was going to investigate, and why it was such an interesting problem, and how it had withstood attempts to solve it for 150 years, and why that mattered, their feedback was, yeah but why is it interesting? Maybe if you explained how it might be applicable to biology it might be interesting. Meanwhile, it's just a blah proposal. I looked up the backgrounds of those on the review company, and yup. They're biologists. No, the ones doing the actual reviewing of the proposals will not be biologists. So their feedback was totally useless.

That has nothing to do with the title of this post, which is spelling.

I have decided to convert all my spelling to Australian, and also my pronunciation of a few key words. Such as the letter Z. In Australia, that is pronounced "zed". I kind of like "zed" over "zee", because "zee" is too close to "see", and sometimes it's confusing as to whether you mean Z or C. No confusion with "zed." So I'm calling it zed. Or I try to. I catch myself saying "zee" all the time. Today, explaining something to a student, I called it "zed" and then "zed" again and then in the middle of a sentence in which I had just called it "zed," I suddenly forgot and called it "zee" all over again.

I'm trying so hard to switch spelling and pronunciation that I have forgotten completely how to spell. Totally inconsistent. I have to stare at a board for a while, then ask my students, wait, did I spell that right? And they all laugh and say no.

Thank goodness it's just a few spelling words here, rather than an entire language. I can only handle one major life change at a time.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Quick trip to Canberra

The capital of Australia is Canberra, which is a small city between Sydney and Melbourne. Both Sydney and Melbourne have populations over 4 million. Canberra has only about 350 thousand. I was invited to give a talk at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra at the beginning of the week, so I spent two days there, without the family.

Because it was just a quick trip, I didn't do much touring. I did walk from the university up a hill to the botanic gardens, and around a bit. The gardens seem quite lovely. Next time I visit I'll be sure to spend a little more time.

Walking back down, I took the following picture of the city.

Lovely view.

Besides that trip up the hill, I stayed on the ANU campus.

But I still took a lot of pictures, because it turns out that there are lots and lots of beautiful Australian birds that live at ANU in Canberra.

In the morning, I woke up to the loud squawking of cockatoos. When I stepped out on the balcony just before heading out for the day, I found that over a dozen large sulphur-crested cockatoos had perched on the tree just outside my window. These birds are larger than sea gulls, very bright white, with pale yellow on the crest of their heads and under their wings. Some people keep them as pets, but that seems very sad, because they are extremely intelligent, extremely social birds. They live as long as humans, and they mate for life, and they live in large communities.

Gorgeous gorgeous birds. I wish I had had a camera to do them justice.

So after watching cockatoos for a while, I headed out the front door toward the other side of campus. Not a block away, I looked across the street and saw four very large green birds. At first I thought they were lorikeets, like we see all the time in Melbourne, until I realized how large they were. King parrots.

I continued walking, only to be distracted one block further by bright pink, white, and gray birds. A pair of brightly colored galah cockatoos were eating grass seed in front of one of the university buildings. I tried to take a picture.

But really I just scared them away.

So I continued walking. Up the street, turn the corner, and there was a whole tree full of king parrots! Bright red and green birds. These do live outside of Melbourne, along the Great Ocean Road, for example, but I had never seen an entire tree full of the birds all at the same time. That was too amazing not to stop, so I stood there, in a parking lot, shooting pictures with my sad phone camera of the king parrots.

All those lovely birds that you cannot see in my pictures are bright red and green king parrots.

If I'm going to continue to be excited about brightly colored birds in the wild, I may have to invest in a real camera.

I finally pulled myself away from the king parrots, and continued walking. As I walked, I would hear the occasional squawk of a cockatoo, and a large white bird would swoop by. I also spotted other Australian birds, like Australian magpies and noisy miners. And then as I turned off the road onto a path toward my building, I saw a pair of crimson rosellas.

Bright red and blue parrots, just poking in the grass. Life is good when you live in Canberra and you are a parrot.

All of this I saw in the 10 minute walk (now about 25 minutes) between my room on campus and the building where I would be giving the talk. Amazing! There are beautiful birds in Melbourne as well, but not all in the same place! At the same time! These Canberrans are lucky people.

In any case, the talk went fine. It was lovely to see a few people I had seen before.

I am definitely going to return to Canberra soon!