Indie Movies and SF Books for a Grumpy Traveler

I am on my way back from a conference. Yet again I wonder why we spend so much time and money on this stupid conference travel.

I got up at 3:40 and I am quite grumpy, so be forewarned.

I had an invited talk at this meeting that’s very large and fairly prestigious to be invited to speak at; that’s a shiny bullet on the CV. However, since they are large and prestigious, they cover very little  for invited speakers, so this endeavor was at nearly full conference cost, which approaches stratospheric. Also, it’s the middle of the semester, so I left on Sunday and am coming back today (Tue), in order to teach my Wed class (my graduate student taught my Monday class). The outgoing and return trips lasted nearly a day each; each direction included two long flights and a couple of hours of driving to/fro the airport so I could get the best-priced ticket. So that’s 3 days of my life, 2 on the plane, 1 at a conference where I worked on my talk in the morning and in the afternoon gave a talk and attended the rest of my session, then chaired another session, and that was basically it. My invited talk was well attended, as was my whole session; however, in the session I chaired thereafter, by the end there were about 5 people in the audience. Tell me how is it worth to any funding body to spend over $2k in order for that speaker to deliver a talk to such a tiny audience? Sure, the speaker gets to hear others, but I fail to grasp how this mode of transmission, which works so well for small meetings (you talk! others talk! you hear cool things! you meet other people and talk with them!) can be justified for gigantic meetings with many parallel sessions and a high sticker price, other than as a way for the organizer to raise money.  Indeed, conferences have become ridiculously expensive,  and you see the effect in many cancelled talks — people decide it’s simply not worth it to travel.

On one leg of the outbound flight I swear the air smelled like farts. You would think my nose would adjust over the 4 hours on the plane, but no such luck. Prior to the return trip, circa 5:30 am and before the caffeine kicked in, an old dude sitting next to me at the airport farted, loudly. What the… fart?

I was supposed to meet a bloggy friend for dinner, but she’s ill (get well soon, L!) so I planned on writing up the homework solutions for my class after the talk and maybe reviewing some proposals, or at the very least working on the award nominations for two my colleagues. Every fuckin’ thing is due this Friday. Oh yes, I also have to create the midterm, also due on Friday. In the light of the mountain of impending work, I decided to watch movies on Amazon prime instead. It was an excellent idea and an apparently much-needed break.

A Big Love Story (also here) is a very sweet movie. It makes you smile and feel very warm and fuzzy, as a good rom-com should, but unlike most of the genre, it has an appealing story, it’s not formulaic, it’s well acted, the leads have great chemistry, and you end up caring for all the characters (leads and support actors alike) as they all feel real.

A Big Love Story (2012) Poster

Falling… (also here)  A beautiful medley of a number of short stories, with unusual story telling, and each cast member in two different roles; the movie has a very indie feel, with very understated acting. I enjoyed it.

Falling... (2012) Poster

On my way to the conference I finished “Ancillary Sword,” the sequel to Anne Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice“. I greatly enjoyed it, even though the writing was somewhat redundant at times (e.g. Kalr Five’s affinity for ancient china was truly beaten to death; everyone has a bit too much tea). However, I love the character development, the details that go into the narrative. Breq remains a compelling protagonist for whom you can truly root,  and there are several new characters that you get to know and care for (the new Ship, Mercy of Kalr; Liutenant Tisarwat; Translator Dlique; Medic; Kalr Five).

Ancillary Sword Orbit cover.jpg

On the way back I read “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress. It was interesting, the plot is pretty cool, but considering that many seem to think she’s among today’s best SF writers, I was definitely not blown away. Honestly, it feels like she banged the book out in a week; that’s fine, people have to eat/pay mortgage/whatever, but the book turned out meh. The plot is compelling, granted, and it’s an easy read, but there is minimal, seemingly pro-forma character development and it feels very shallow. I can assure you I did not grow to give a rat’s a$$ about any of the characters in the book. However, it reads as something that is Hollywood-ready, easy to mold into a screenplay for a summer blockbuster with scientists, aliens, and a potential end of the world.



As of a few years ago, if you are an employee of my university, you must purchase airline tickets through the singular university-approved vendor. That is, if want your ticket reimbursed before the trip; if you dare buy a ticket in any other way, you have to wait until after the trip to get reimbursed.

Somebody lined their filthy pockets with this deal.

For domestic flights, you can use the online reservation system (based on the Concur platform, which I take is quite common), but then at the end there’s an agent who checks the reservation and finalizes it, then skims a fee. What annoys me awfully is that a) every time you call or email them, they charge an additional fee (even if all the calls are in regards to the same trip); b) you cannot book international flights, no matter how simple, through the online tool, you have to call or email the agency; c) you have to use the agency even though you can get lower prices pretty much anywhere online (I like Kayak for price comparison). If I want to take the better deal found elsewhere — because, you know, it’s my grant money and it doesn’t grow on trees, and we as PIs are supposed to be good stewards of these funds — I have to use personal funds and then wait until after the trip to get reimbursed; that’s fine for domestic flights where it’s OK to buy a ticket 2-3 weeks before the trip, but not for overseas travel.

I have two complicated, multi-city international trips this summer; I have no intention of having several thousand dollars sitting on my credit cards or having to be taken from my savings while I wait for reimbursement more than half a year from now. So I contacted the agency with the preferred itinerary. We have exchanged several emails regarding this trip. Every leg is more expensive than found elsewhere, and that’s sans fee; I am dying to find out how much of a fee the whole ordeal will incur.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things.

15-min Improv Blogging

Call this an experimental post: I give myself 15 min, and I write whatever I write. When the timer goes off, I stop, edit very lightly, and publish.

Here goes.

1. I am reading “Bad Feminist” and enjoying it for the most part. I will have to reconsider my deep love for semicolons. Roxane Gay does very well with short sentences that would, in my case, be longer and connected by semicolons. By the way, if you never read John Scalzi’s “Lock In” (SPOILERS AHEAD!), he wrote it entirely without semicolons. I sort of liked the book, but as one commenter somewhere aptly said — it’s excellent in terms of world building, but the plot is thin. I greatly enjoyed the accompanying free novella “Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.”

2. I am positively fatigued by all the review requests. I think I definitely did more than my fair share of refereeing this year. I attempted to count how many today, and got exhausted at the enormity of the task. I review for a great many journals and all the requests are in a Completed Reviews folder, but there are first and second reviews, so I would have to look at each to make sure I don’t double count… I took a 5-second look at the list and thought “Nah.” All I will say that the APS (American Physical Society) alone sends me at least one paper per month, which is just as well, because as I publish with them extensively. But they are hardly the only publisher I review for, and I probably review 1 paper per week or 3-4 per month. I think that may be too many for my current overall workload…

3. I am teaching a 100-student sophomore class in the spring, so that’s going to be fun, for the definition of fun being “occasionally excruciatingly painful.”

4. I have a pretty heavy travel schedule in the spring, mostly connected with the funding agencies that graciously give me money and now expect reports and/or service. I cannot say no as I am up for renewal, on which I  am really counting. The trips are 2-day for the most part. I have two weeklong overseas trips in the summer.  2015 hasn’t even started and I am already exhausted thinking of all the work ahead. I will also be becoming the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything in mid 2015.

5. I promised my grad students 4 papers in the pipeline will be out by New Year. I am not sure how I will pull that off, but mid-January sounds plausible. Maybe.

6. Tomorrow is turkey day. We are going to our friends’ place for a party and potluck. Alas, I haven’t bought all the ingredients needed for cooking yet. I am counting on the overpriced store to have the needed vegetables in stock if my regular hunting grounds prove empty.

7. Fifteen minutes is a lot of time — who knew?

Stopped here with 40 seconds to spare. Now just for some light edits…

Happy Thanksgiving to US readers!


“The Oatmeal” on Having Kids

Why haven't you had kids yet?

“The Oatmeal” on having kids

I love  The Oatmeal comics, I think he’s really funny and insightful. But this one pissed me off, enough to write a post when I really should be doing work and have adequately pre-caffeinated for it.

Kidless people, it’s cool, really. No judgement regarding the kidlessness, I promise. Don’t want kids, don’t have kids, end of story.

But I actually hate you a little bit, in a very transient way, when you utter (or put up a web comic with) bullshit like “Forget about traveling the world, or pursuing your dreams,” as we all know that one cannot procreate and chew gum at the same time, let alone procreate and either travel or have dreams. (Also, I think travel as a means of self-actualization is…. curious. )

And the thing with pooping and vomiting. I see these “Eww, diapers!” brought up all the time as the worst part of parenting.

I can tell you, changing diapers, cleaning vomit or poop — they do not phase faze me at all. Maybe I am just not easily disgusted (my husband is much more squeamish).
When I think about what is hard about parenting, poop and vomit do not come to mind, ever; they do not register as difficult or in any way remarkable parts of parenting. I am considerably more pissed when the kids spill a glass of juice so I have to clean it up; I am exponentially more pissed when a grownup spills a glass of juice and I have to clean it up.

Poop and vomit are, to me, completely unimportant. While nothing grosses me out regarding my own kids, I don’t care for the bodily excretions of other people’s kids, so I think all daycare and preschool teachers are saints and should be constantly showered with money and gifts and all forms of gratitude one can think of.

The hardest parts of parenting, for me, are the constraints on my time (because occasionally I want or need to work non-stop) and, when the kids were very little, recurrent ear infections. These days, I don’t care for playing with plastic toys or watching certain cartoons, because many things that were magical with kid No 1 are not so much any more by kid No 3.

Hugs and kisses, however, never get old. And neither does the general awesomeness of watching someone grow up.

Notes from the Road

* Travel sucks. Sucks balls, sucks a$$. Sometimes it also sucks scabs, nose hair, warts, and bunions. I got a grand total of 3.25 hrs of sleep last night, got up early to catch a flight; I would not be this comatose even after jet-lag, and I am still in the US.

* Being at conferences is always an exercise in perpetual physical discomfort for me. Often there is not enough leg room; luckily that’s not an issue this time. I am always freezing in conference rooms, and today was worse than I’ve felt in a long time. It’s really hot outside and unbelievably cold inside. Why do they have to blast the A/C down to 60 degrees? I had long sleeves and a light sweater and was still thinking of going back to the room for a serious sweatshirt. Some people should be stripped of their thermostat-fiddling privileges.

* I heard three plenary talks today. Two were of the historical-perspective kind and one of the looking-into-the-future kind. All were nice.  They also featured, in a completely unexpected turn of events (not),  reasonably famous old white dudes, some of whom reminisced of their life and times  next door to even more famous and perhaps even older (and whiter?) and possibly deceased dudes, to whom they referred as “Bill” or “Tom” to emphasize familiarity and thus self-aggrandize by proxy. I used to be intimidated by such schenanigans, by how I would never find myself in the thick of things like these people had done, stirring the direction of a whole field; now I am just lightly miffed. One of the big revelations that came to me in recent years, and it didn’t take me even a decade of professordom to grasp it (maybe I am really not that smart), is that the vast majority of  scientists — no matter how accomplished and how well recognized — are painfully insecure; some readily show it, some mask it by extreme aggression. This also means that some people on whose support you count will not support because they are too busy feeling unrecognized and ignored themselves, which makes them self-absorbed.

* A luminary of the field died last month, I’d just heard. He did so much for the field and was so important and so well recognized. And now he’s dead, just as dead as any Joe Schmoe the bacon-burger enthusiast. Sometimes I think I should spend all of my days devouring bacon burgers. With beer.

* A question for the blogosphere: How much time should one (the  professor/group leader/PI) spend with own group members when at conferences? When I was a grad student, there were usually several grad students from the group at every conference, and we hung out together. I would see my advisor occasionally. My advisor was a big important dude, and would sometimes introduce us to some of his buddies (not sure that it helped, but he did do it). When we went to dinner together, he’d always be the life of the party and we his captive audience. I always thought he was fascinating but at some point, after I’d grown up, I just saw him as tiring and not all that interesting.

I am at a conference with several of my students. It’s a big conference and not one we usually go to, so there aren’t many of my friends around to whom I could introduce the younglings. There are enough of my students for them to happily hang out together (I see they met other students already) and I don’t want to cramp their style, but I don’t think I should avoid them altogether (and I don’t). Recently, when two students and I were at another conference, we did go to dinner once with several other folks (profs and students), that was nice and not too taxing on anyone; we did catch up with each other briefly at coffee breaks, but I left them to do their thing for the most part.  But I do wonder what the right amount of socializing or interacting in general is common. Because of the power differential there is always a danger that I’ll just start monologuing and nobody will stop me, as happened with my advisor, even if I am boring the hell out of them. Also, socializing is socializing, and my students are young guys while I am a middle-aged woman, so we don’t have natural conversational topics outside of work; also, I like the professional relationship and don’t want to get into any personal topics that could make either party uncomfortable. I might be curious to know more about my students as people, I don’t want to be intrusive; again, the power differential.

So what say you, blogosphere PIs, how much do you hang out with your students at conferences? Students and postdocs, do you want to spend any time with the prof?

The Opposite of Parent is… Tourist?

Over the past couple of months, DH and I have been hanging out more often than usual with some couples who do not have kids. For many, it’s a choice; for a few, unfortunately not. What’s curious is that all of them have said how not having kids enables them to travel, along the lines of  “Since we don’t have kids, we can travel as much as we like.”

Sure; kids, especially little ones, make travel difficult, but certainly not impossible. But why is being able to travel presumably undeterred so important anyway, why is it such a big deal?

To me, in the most abstract terms, having kids is really a long-term project with a potential to result in great personal fulfillment. I remember a while ago discussing a study with a friend, where the study conclusion was that humans in general draw considerable satisfaction from personally meaningful long-term projects (although, I assume, the conclusion probably only holds on average, the same as with just about anything in regards to people).  I could certainly imagine devoting yourself to your career,working on the next great  American novel, or doing whatever it takes to become the world’s best viola player as an alternative to having kids. One of my friends trains obsessively for Iron Man competitions. Or I could see deciding to do something like joining the Peace Corps, Doctors/Engineers without Borders,  the Red Cross or UNICEF, or perhaps becoming politically active in order to affect change.

But when people talk about travel, they don’t talk about going to live in China to learn Mandarin or to Africa to help the poor, they talk about being able to take frequent vacations in varied exotic places. I can see how that might be fun, but that’s just what it is — it’s just fun and it’s vacationing, but it’s not very creative or very meaningful (near as I can tell) and it’s certainly transient. Sure, you are drinking from the beauty of mother nature and relaxing, recharging your batteries, but then you come back home and then what?

It could totally be that I have no imagination (I likely don’t have enough money to do travel “just right” so being constantly uncomfortable probably doesn’t help), but I am personally quite sick of travel and don’t see very much that casual, vacation-length travel (say, a week or two at a time) would do for my long-term personal fulfillment. I would say that a good book does more for my well-being than travel (alas, I am very picky about books), as do interactions with students, writing technical papers, and blogging.

I promise I am not trying to be a douche here and stereotype folks without kids. I am trying to understand what it is about travel that makes it such a big deal and so important and perhaps fulfilling to some people. Is this love for serial tourism ubiquitous and many more people would globe-trot for fun if only they could afford it, or do I just happen to know some very happy travelers?

A Grouchy Conference Travelogue

I recently came back from a conference in a big European city that is on everyone’s list of top three cities to see on the Old Continent. Anyone who heard where I was going went “Wow!” so I  had to assure them that it all sounded much more glamorous than it would be, as I had a lot of work to do and the conference had a pretty tightly packed schedule.

The trip started and ended with very uncomfortable airline travel for someone who is 6 ft tall. I needed to sit completely upright just to have a chance of actually fitting my legs in the tiny space provided (and yes, I always ask for an aisle seat). I was busy with paper and grant agency report submissions till the very last moment so didn’t have time to prep for the trip, and as a result I didn’t feel comfortable braving the subway, so I ended up paying 60 euro for (legitimate) cab to the hotel. But I met a nice cabby who spoke good English, and actually had him take me back to the airport a few days later as well. He was the most pleasant person I met during the stay.

While I travel to Europe quite often, this was my first time in this particular city, and probably the first time in the country in the last 20 years. The city is lovely, but it’s not magical. It is a big European city,  with all the hallmarks — people walking in the streets, sitting in cafes and restaurants at all hours of the day, old buildings… But also busy traffic, noise, and a lot of trash on the streets. It’s great but nothing I haven’t seen other places many times before, including where I am from. I gave up on trying to do touristy things, because I didn’t have the time or the desire to stand in line for a museum or another landmark for several hours each. One day, when I am on an actual vacation, maybe I will brave the sights; this time I did get a chance to see quite a bit from the river, as we had the conference dinner on a boat, and it was very nice.

My students and I commented on having had the pleasure (or rather the displeasure) of experiencing the stereotypes: how the locals really dislike Americans (I easily pass for American in Europe and get all the usual “stupid American” crap), how you can’t tell if it’s worse if you speak no word of the native language or try to speak it but imperfectly, either way they will grudgingly speak English (which is far from perfect, but whatever) and probably spit in your food; how service people everywhere are very rude and disinterested, probably because they don’t work for tips (it’s the same in my home country; the wonderful customer service everywhere in the US spoiled me forever for all of Europe); how everything is ridiculously expensive; how food and wine are great (and, yes, ridiculously expensive).

The bustling city reminded me of a few other things. In most European cities, walking is a way of life. The cities are conducive to walking not because Europeans are inherently smarter and more virtuous than Americans, but because the goddamn cities are very old, older than the invention of the car. As a result, downtown traffic and parking are a nightmare, but public transport is great and varied, and the city is alive throughout.  For instance, my hotel was a 25-min walk from the conference center, so I easily clocked in 50 min of walking every day, and even more to go about to restaurants or get coffee . In contrast, cities in the US are in general just not walkable, with the exception of a few (NYC, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, and perhaps a few others I don’t know well or at all, like Portland). Outside of the few walkable cities, if you want exercise, you have to allot time for it and generally transport yourself by car to where you can engage in it.  If I were to walk 20-25 min from where I live in any direction, the most exciting places I would reach are my kids’ schools in one direction, a grocery store in another, my dentist in the third, and a park in the fourth. There is nothing of note in between  except  houses, and it easily happens that I run into no other human on my way to any of the exciting landmarks. So if want the same 50 min of exercise that I was getting around the fringes at the conference, I actually have to set aside an hour to go somewhere and do it, as walking around the neighborhood is pleasant but freakin’ boring and a little creepy. My folks, when they came to visit me, always commented on how uncomfortable they were to go outside and walk in the beautifully maintained neighborhoods, because there are no people anywhere. Where I live, without a car you are toast. There is bus service, but very infrequent and also creepy. In European cities, including where my folks live, there are buses, trams, metro etc. all the time, connecting all parts of the city. And people walk the rest of the way.

In the city that I visited, people are also stereotypically among the best dressed in the world, and I will concur, there were many stylish-looking specimens. There were no t-shirts, no sneakers, no flip-flops, and no pink. I don’t think I saw anyone, male or female, in shorts. There was considerably less skin showing than in the US, i.e. I saw no overtly tan young women in short shorts and tank tops, which are the staple of fashion on my campus once temperatures are above 50. And there were scarves, scarves everywhere, on both men and women. I was in line to get coffee, the temperature was in the mid-seventies, and a dude in front of me was wearing a jacket and what looked like a woolen scarf. I started sweating just looking at him, but I suppose one must suffer for fashion; if you are not uncomfortable, then it cannot be fashion.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice how tiny everyone was — not just thin, but really short. Everyone likes to hate on the fat disgusting Americans, but the thing is — where I live, people are of north European descent. Even at their thinnest, my neighbors are not the candidates for the same clothes as the fabled stylish and petite brunettes of the country I visited.

Another annoying issue, which probably had to do with conference organization as much as the city itself, was the lack of wireless access to the web. I happened not to have wireless in my hotel room (nominally I should have, but I was in some sort of no-coverage nook, so I could get a faint signal only in my bathroom, not in the room itself). Basically, I had access to the web only in the hotel lobby, so a little in the morning and evening. There was nominally wireless coverage at the conference center, but you couldn’t get on at all. On the upside, the absence of wireless at the conference helped me focus on the program, which resulted in me paying more attention to the talks and asking more questions than usual, which may or may not have been widely appreciated (mwahahahaha ;-)).

Overall, overseas travel makes me grumpy. Big European cities are not as magical when you were born and raised in one and you’ve seen a number of others, but many people will also think you are an a$$hole when you dare question the mythical magicalness (yes, I know it’s not a word) of mythically magical cities. The conference program was decent and I enjoyed catching up with colleagues. The food was good, I enjoyed walking and taking in the city, and I loved that I could open the window in my hotel room, it’s wonderful to occasionally not be subjected to airconditioning.  But, when I travel I miss my family and the comforts of the US. I love my US, and it is home, as much as some aspects of its culture scare me. But that’s perhaps material for another post…

April Showers Bring May Semester End and Thoughts on Learning New Things

For faculty on the semester system, there are only a couple of weeks of teaching left. This is probably the busiest time of the year, due to the sinister convergence of the semester ending and the conference season approaching. Program committees of many conferences are working hard these days to evaluate the abstracts; I am on three. On top of it, I am about to go to DC, again, for the third time in the last six months. This year has, so far, been very busy for me.

With perpetual busyness, how does one find the time to learn new things? I mean, where does the time come from to learn new techniques or the tenets of new fields of inquiry, but learn them really, really well?

I am working on topics that are somewhat but not far removed from my core expertise. You pick up related stuff along the way, as you work with students and postdocs, listen to talks by others, read up on papers in order to write proposals. But I feel I am not really an expert in any of these topics, as what I know about them has been acquired in a non-systematic fashion, by assembling the bits and pieces from various sources over time. I always worry that there are things I am overlooking, the literature I am missing.

There is something to be said for being introduced to a topic through taking a class or reading a textbook. Yet, the only way I have the time to read a textbook is if I teach a class based on it, and even so I may not get to read the whole thing. There are several topics that I find interesting and where I could potentially have something new and nontrivial to say, but the time to properly learn about any of them is just not there. I am itching to venture further out, to learn more and seek challenges and connections with fields that are more foreign to me.

I have been asking people how they find the time to learn new things, and the answer they often give me is “sabbatical.” I don’t see that happening with me; having small and school-aged kids and a working husband, I don’t see us leaving this place for a real sabbatical any time soon. During my previous sabbatical, I had a kid and also organized a major conference; I wrote several proposals, of which a major one got funded; I worked with students and wrote papers, and I think I did quite well keeping my head above water on all fronts, considering that my brain was mush due to no sleep and out-of-whack hormones. My next sabbatical is years away, and I need/want to learn and do some new things sooner than that. But there is just never enough time to pick up a book and work through it, for real. On top of teaching, I continually have students to work with, papers to edit, grants to write, service, travel. Summers are prime-time for conference travel, writing papers, and preparing fall proposals (this fall is really important for me grant-wise, I really need to do a good job with the NSF). There always seems to be something more urgent. Yet learning new things that can support your long-term research vision is important, like investing in education and infrastructure is important for long-term economic growth.

Now, I have a pretty good system for getting uninterrupted blocks of time. There is one day of the week when everyone knows I am MIA, and I have been successfully blocking out a second day in recent years; this also means that the other three days are chock full of teaching and meetings and I feel positively drained after them. My 1-2 blocked-out days are spent on writing papers or grants or whatever else needs tending to urgently; for instance, I spent a whole day grading last week, because that was the most urgent thing to do.

Being a working parent means that your time is always maximally obligated. Becoming older, I find that I can’t keep the pace of little sleep and burning the candle on both ends, which I used to be able to pull off when I was younger to squeeze some extra time for work out of the stubbornly 24-hour-long days. For instance, after a day of wrangling the Littles, like today, I can barely blog, let alone read something technically challenging.

How does one find the time to learn new things for work? I suppose this somewhat extends to — how does one find the time to exercise or have a hobby? People will offer answers that I have always found irritating: “You just have to make it (or yourself) a priority.” When you have kids, that means (1) you take the time from your work, (2) you take the time from your sleep, or (3) you take the time from your family time, which means your partner or additional caregivers bear the brunt of you taking the time for yourself or your new endeavors. I want to learn new things to do my job better, so I don’t think I should be sacrificing too much from (2) or (3), because I don’t have the stamina to skimp on sleep any more and the kids are only little once and my DH is entitled to weekends too. I want to find the time during my work day to accommodate more learning.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you find the time to learn new things for work, and learn them well?