Sunday, August 28, 2016

Proper spaces

Last week, Tim moved the large drinking glasses to the right side of the cupboard, and put the small ones on the left side. Friends, the large drinking glasses have always been on the left. The large ones belong on the left, and the small ones belong on the right. After Tim moved them to the wrong sides, they sat in that cupboard, looking so very uncomfortable, lost and unhappy and upset. So I waited patiently until the dishwasher was full again, and then I unloaded it correctly, putting the large glasses back on the left.

Ah.  Doesn't that feel so much better?

I've been thinking a bit about the way things fit and don't fit, and how we get used to particular spaces. Yesterday we took Jonathan to a friend's house out in the suburbs, then Tim and I took a long walk back, through quiet tree-lined streets and parks, to the end of the line on a tram and then back into the city.

We've talked about the idea of buying a house again. Here, housing prices have doubled every ten years since forever. There has never been a burst housing bubble. Going into major debt is seen as a good investment in the future. Is it?

We could think about buying a house in the suburbs. Maintaining a house might not be as big a chore as it was in our previous place. Houses are smaller here, and gardens are smaller, and there would not be so much yard work, although there would be yard work again. And we would have to buy a car, so that we could use it to haul groceries and drive ourselves to events off in other suburbs. Do we want to go back to that? I kind of don't want to go back to that. The rate we pay in rent currently for three bedrooms and two bathrooms is significantly less than the rate we would pay in a mortgage for the same sized space for the next 30 years. And mortgages seem to be variable interest rates, so if the rate goes up, so does our monthly bill. Is it worth it to own a slice of lawn to mow? Or dirt to attract those famous deadly Australian spiders?

It seems like such a strange thing to so many people we know, to choose to give up home ownership willingly. But this life and this space seem to work surprisingly well for us. I'm bruising my knuckles while knocking on the wooden table as I write that. But thinking out ten years, twenty years, I'm still not convinced I want that yard work. If we bought a house now, we could in theory own a home that would be worth over four million dollars then, applying that doubling trick. But we would have paid nearly that much money in mortgage and interest. Whereas right now, we live in the most amazing location at the foot of a huge park where someone else does the yard work for us. The money we are saving in mortgage can be squirreled away to support our retirement.

I feel like we belong where we are for now. Like those large glasses, over on the left side of the cupboard. They could be moved, no harm done, but it just wouldn't feel as comfortable.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing a book

At work, I've decided to write a book for grad students. I've had some notes for grad students posted on my website for a few years. In the last couple of years, others have asked permission to use the notes in a graduate course, and students have been reading them, and sending questions and feedback. And a colleague-turned-book-editor encouraged me to turn the notes into a real book and get them published by a real publisher.

And I decided turning the notes into a real book is a good idea, in theory.

Here in Australia, grad school doesn't work like it does in North America. There, grad students enter grad school, spend two years taking coursework and shopping for an advisor and a problem, then solve the problem in three years and write a dissertation. The faculty who teach the young grad students can fight over the best ones, and convince them to join their group one or two years in.

In Australia, you skip those first two years. Before you arrive you contact the advisor. Together you decide on your dissertation problem. And then you apply for admission, with the problem in your pocket. You are done in three years.

Before, it was part of my job description to teach early grad students and convince them to work with me from the comfort of my office.

Now, it is part of my job description to recruit mysterious students from Out There in the world to work with me on problems they don't know anything about. And I don't know anything about the students, either. Or where to find them. Or how to introduce them to problems I find interesting.

In theory, if I write a book for grad students that is interesting and fun, then students are more likely to come to me wanting to know more, and I can invite them to come and be my minions. My prodigies.

In theory, if I write a book for grad students, grad students will read my book and they will know who I am and they will think of me as that person who wrote the book that sent them on this lovely path off into the world, and good feelings will come my way.

In theory, if I write a book for grad students, then when my grad students, or even undergrad students arrive, I can hand them the book and tell them that these are the things they need to know as background and let's talk about them. And I won't forget to cover that one topic.

But in practice, writing a book for grad students is hard work. I decide to add topic A and remove topic B. But then topic C should be added. But if so, I really should be putting topic D in there, probably at the end of chapter 4, which was supposed to be finished two weeks ago. And topic D is a little too long and technical. Maybe it will scare the grad students away. Maybe I don't know it well enough. Maybe I can invent my own proof using only a minimal amount of new definitions and a clever example. And then seven more hours have gone by.

And then there are all the voices in my head. I don't know if I should be listening to them or not. They say things like: Do you realize how many hours you have spent on this? Do you realize those are wasted hours you will never never get back? Do you realize that you're supposed to be writing real research papers? And this book doesn't count? It won't count for research, or teaching, or service. You do realize, don't you, that the things you are studying so hard to write in the book were all discovered 30 or 40 years ago? They are not Current. They are not new and exciting. Maybe the field is moving away and they are not even Important. Students aren't going to like this book. No one will use it. No one will read it. Except the experts, in passing. They will read your book, and they will say, this book is terrible. This is a stupid way to talk topic C. Why didn't she say more about topic E? Why did she use that proof? It is too abstract. It is not abstract enough. This exercise is stupid. THERE IS AN ERROR! I would never have written the book that way. Why was this included? There is already a great survey article that covers so much more! Wait, she's just copying the steps in the survey article. This exposition isn't different enough! COPYRIGHT LAWSUIT! I hate this book.

The voices in my head hate my book.

And maybe I am wasting my time, but I'm giving myself until October, and then I intend to be finished. But yes, this writing is sucking away time and life.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Watching events in Rio from Australia

After going a year without owning a television, Tim went out and bought one. He hauled it home on the tram and plugged it in. I came home to footy on the screen. Followed by a Scooby Doo movie. Then early the next morning, Saturday Morning Cartoons! Ack!

The real reason Tim bought the TV was so that we could watch the Olympics. In theory. The time difference between Melbourne and Rio is a little awkward, though. The opening ceremony was at 6am on a Saturday. No one was up in our house. Since then, live events have started around 11pm, carried on throughout the night, and then finished up in the morning hours while I'm off at work. Prime time TV is while everyone is asleep in Rio. We get to watch a guy named Hamish show us the highlights of what happened. We saw all of team gymnastics wrapped into about five minutes. No talk, no special back stories. No nervous anticipation while we wait for the judges to post the scores. Just four events in a row -- bing -- bing -- bing -- bing. And here's who won. Ads. It was truly amazing.

So we've given up on TV for the Olympics. We log into our internet service provider's special online Olympics site, and find the event from 2am the night before that looks most interesting, and watch that. HDMI cable means the TV is still good for projecting the laptop screen.

It's different being in the south of the southern hemisphere during the summer Olympics. It's kind of cold here. It isn't debilitating cold. The grass is still a lovely green. The wattle trees are beginning to bloom -- they're supposed to be spectacular in yellow in the early spring, but we haven't lived here through a spring yet. I overheard a lady on the tram telling her mobile phone that it was "literally freezing here." But it isn't literally freezing. It hasn't dropped below freezing all winter, as far as I can tell, and it hasn't even really come close. But still, it's the kind of weather that makes you happy to curl up in front of the heater. To wear at least three layers, and fuzzy socks and slippers, and to keep an umbrella close at hand when out of doors.

It's not really weather for climbing 10m platforms in a speedo. 

So when we watched the synchronized diving a couple of nights ago, jumps and somersaults into the green pool, I found myself getting colder and colder and colder. And I really really envied those divers the hot tub.

The next time I watch diving in the middle of the winter, I want to do it from a hot tub. 

Swimming has been another favourite. The Aussies took two gold medals in swimming the first day, more than anyone else! I became a fan. We watched a women's relay race, freestyle swimming, a couple of nights ago, and the Aussies were way out in front as the last team member jumped in! Go Australia! But then that infuriating swimmer Katie Ledecky managed to overtake the Aussies and win the gold at the end. How frustrating! And then I realised that I am cheering for the home team, and home has changed.

My home has changed, and I am changing. And I think it's a good thing.

Go yellow and green!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Moving along

It is the first day of August. That means a lot. It means that I am no longer affiliated with the Good Old Dudes University. It means it has been a year since I worked there for pay. And my unpaid leave has now expired without incident, without comment. We're both moving on.

I have no regrets. I love my new job. The people are great, from the newest student to the most senior dean. My colleagues have energy, excitement, enthusiasm. We've built a seminar, attracted grant money, hired a postdoc, organized students. The trajectory here is positive.

I love my office, too. Soon after I arrived, at my request, two additional large whiteboards were installed. I have a huge window on another wall. It's a really great workspace.

And the family seems happy.

There is a well known quote that Google says I should attribute to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

At G.O.D. University, it was clear there were things I could not change, and most of the time I could live with that knowledge with serenity and acceptance. But there happened to be a third option: "And grant me the awareness I need to escape when I can, with dignity, to find a new place where change takes far less courage, and acceptance takes less serenity."

Things aren't perfect here or anywhere. But things are better here, in many subtle ways. And spring is coming.