pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)

On Friday afternoons, I take the role of Simon Cowell.

The British television personality came to fame through his notoriously harsh criticism of talent show contestants. His ability to slam anyone and everyone's attempts on stage got him both a talking wax work model at Madam Tussaud's (where visitors could enjoy being insulted themselves) and a spot on every future talent show on both sides of the Atlantic pond. 

Fun fact: Before appearing on 'American idol', Simon Cowell had his teeth veneered to give him the showbiz white smile. This move was ridiculed in the UK, where cosmetic dentistry is frequently viewed as excessive vanity. As a side note, the view that Brits actually have bad teeth is not correct (at least, not my generation and below) but having work done for pure aesthetics is still relatively uncommon. 

The afternoon on the last day of the week is the time for our research group meeting. In this hour, a hapless student is made to do a presentation in English on a research paper they have recently read. Bearing in mind that such publications are frequently jargon-heavy, excessively long turgid reads that often refer back to a string of previously published works by the same authors, this is not an easy task. 

This week one of my own students was on the podium and he was doing an admirable job. While still struggling with speaking English fluidly, he had put together a comprehensive review of the paper, pulled out the relevant highlights from past related works and added helpful diagrams to demonstrate some of the newer concepts.

None of this stopped me tearing him apart limb from limb. 

Really, he loved it. If he shows up again on Monday.

The main issue was that --in common with most of his peers-- my student tended to copy out relevant sentences of the paper word by word, rather than using his own terms. The reason is quite understandable: if you're concerned about the quality of your own English, why not use someone else's that's already made the point? However, such a tactic has three problems:

The first is that paper writing isn't designed for presentations. Sentences tend to be long and heavy with technical terms than may (if you're lucky) have been defined in an earlier section. A presentation, on the other hand, needs to have short pithy comments that people can quickly glance at while you're speaking.

The second problem is that --since the sentences are long and technical-- I knew my student would never have written them. This leaves me wondering if he has truly understood the underlying concept.

Finally, since I am the only native English speaker in a group that consists of many 4th year undergraduates and Masters students, using such constructs doesn't help the audience understand the presentation. 

This led to each slide presented being dissected and re-explained. Sadly for me, the answers left little to insult. I wasn't able to use any of the lines I had planned. Not even "You're like a singing candle. You just stand there and melt." or "I won't remember you in 15 minutes." or "Did you really believe you could become an American Idol? Well, then you're deaf.". I couldn't even slide in Shut up and start singing.".

… Although admittedly if I had we would still be in the seminar room now while I attempted to explain why I had compared my student to a candle, demonstrated serious memory problems, promptly forgotten we were in Japan and then suggested he set his thesis work to music.

At the end, I just had one final question: "On your 4th slide, what is the difference between the data given by the black line and that by the blue?"

My student explained and then looked at me expectantly. "I actually don't know," I admitted. "It was a genuine question."

pergamond: ([Shrek] Puss-in-boots // how can you res)

"The physics department at Hokkaido University is organising an international conference and we'd like to see your meeting facilities."

The hotel employee looked at the three people in front of him; two foreigners and one Japanese, all wearing the equivalent of jeans and hoodies and two of whom were clutching cameras. There was no way around the fact we looked more like tourists hoping to go on the merry-go-round than representatives from a prestigious national university. 

Yes, there was a merry-go-round. I'm getting to that. 

To give him credit, the receptionist's face did not suggest that this was the most improbable story he had heard in his life and instead called through to the hotel's conference facilities to locate us a tour guide. 

While we waited, I had to admit that although we might look out of place organising a conference, the lobby of this hotel didn't exactly fit the bill either. Behind a decorative iron gate, a brightly coloured merry-go-round with the usual collection of ridable fantasies --white horses, dragons and a grinning pig-- rotated slowly. To its right, a collection of slot machines blinked an epileptic cascade of lights and directly in front of us, signs pointed up two escalators promising shops, restaurants and bars. 

I wondered how any participant was going to take this conference seriously. 

Our guide appeared in a crisp business suit and armed with envelopes containing details of the hotel's facilities. The usual bows were exchanged along with business cards, although the latter was a one-way transaction since I never think to get any made up. No doubt this confirmed all the warnings our host had been given when he was summon by telephone. 

"Do you speak Japanese?" he asked me, in Japanese.

"A little," I replied which was correctly interpreted as: 'None whatsoever. I've just got really good at guessing what questions people ask me'. The conversation was then directed towards my friend, who had the advantage of being:

(a) Japanese

(b) Not wearing wearing bright yellow Doctor Marten boots with a winky smily drawn on their toes. 

He was also not directly connected the conference, having been roped in to provide the wheels that made this road trip possible. However, the only person who was involved was me, and no one was believing that just then. 

I should add that had I planned to be touring these hotels, I would have been slightly more prepared. Astrophysics doesn't really use business cards, but I could have toned down the colour scheme to pretend I understood that copulation with a rainbow was unlikely. My plan had been to visit hotels under consideration for the meeting location and scout out the area. However, the regions surrounding the hotels were small and there wasn't much to see unless you went inside the building whereupon you get questioned and…

… this is where we started our story. 

Despite the pig riding merry-go-round, the attached conference suit was smart and evidently well used for purposes such as ours. When my friend directed our hotel guide's questions towards me, I was formally introduced.

"Sensei?!" (Professor?!) This time it was no longer possible to keep the blank astonishment out of his greeting. 

Hey, all geniuses have a unique look, don't you know? Mine says my research made me look into the Total Perspective Vortex, whereupon I lost my mind.  

After the final goodbyes, we were left to exit the hotel on our own. I was initially surprised we weren't escorted off the premises but apparently it was felt that if we had been terrorists, we would have thought of a more believable story.  

pergamond: ([PoT] Niou // failure)

OK, Mercurial, I feel the time as come for THE TALK. 

The talk about where I see my career going (grand slam of Nobel Prizes) and you see it going (down the tubes).  

Since I understand the best way to find common ground is by focussing on positive features of the other party, I will start by saying I do understand why you are widely used. Through your abilities, many people can work on the same computer code. They can make their own changes, share them with a community of code developers around the globe and in turn, implement other people's adjustments seamlessly into their version. In fact, for a large project --such as the two my research depends on-- I would go as far to say you are the essential component that prevents every one of us working on discrete, subtly different code sources.

Code version "elizabeth-170313-v5-old" never had that great a ring to it.

When I use you for the simplest of situations, we have no problems. 

Do you have anything nice to say about me, Mercurial?
Maybe that I'm persistent? Pointlessly so.
Maybe that I scream well when I fail? And that makes you laugh. 

Because this isn't the whole story, is it? When things get a little more complicated, you and I seem to break apart. We are like the estranged siblings who can manage to nod politely at one another during family gatherings so long as no one mentions the incident with the pancakes in 1982. Let's take a look at a recent example together, shall we?

I was adding a small new routine to the code. A fresh bit of programming that sat in its own file and never did anything to upset anyone. It was an innocent, Mercurial, you didn't have to treat it so badly. Initially you pretended to accept it, adding it to your register like Snow White's stepmother counted the princess within her family. Then I tried to merge with the main online code version and your cruel intent showed.

You refused to perform the action; your excuses involved branches, conflicts and heads. May I just say now that telling a lady she gave you 'multiple heads' is just not acceptable manners? Not to mention quite outside topic. You couldn't resolve, you couldn't update and the only option left to me was to 'force' my changes through which you proposed in a manner than suggested I'd regret it quicker than Voldemort after the birth of Harry Potter. 

I couldn't help but feel you weren't really trying. 

And I have to ask why. I wanted to love you. I felt we could work well together in the same way Lisa Simpson wanted to adore her substitute teacher. Yet, Lisa was despised by her teacher because she was thought too pretty. Is that your problem, Mercurial? Are you jealous because your execution command 'hg' reminds everyone your name is akin to a poisonous grey liquid metal? Or perhaps you just enjoyed the fact I gestured so rudely at my computer during these troubles that I was forced to leave the coffee shop in short order afterwards?

I liked that coffee shop and I may never be able to return.

I know other people do not have the same troubles with you and I feel bullied, tormented and terrorised by a piece of inanimate software.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE TO FEEL INFERIOR TO  A PILE OF 1s AND 0s?

It's not good. You make me feel like the Penny of my research family. And I don't even like cheesecake. 

 

--

DISCLAIMER: The problems the author has alluded to in this post reflect more on the difficulties with version controlling a large project than the Mercurial software. This is possibly supported by the Mercurial site which claims you can "Work easier. Work faster" but doesn't specify with respect to what. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

The problem with having a prolonged break from blogging is … how do you restart? Should you wait for an occasion SO MOMENTOUS that even an illiterate teacup pig would find a way to communicate it to the world:

 "I'VE JUST GIVEN BIRTH TO SEXTULPETS AND THE FATHER IS EITHER JUSTIN BIEBER, SHELDON COOPER OR THE RETIRED POPE'S GROOM OF THE STOOL!"

 (Just so we're clear that comment was entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real events, occurring in any country, is purely coincidental.)

 Or should you just pick up from an entirely random point :

"WHEN I WALKED DOWN THE ROAD TO GET MILK, I SAW A CAR!!!"

(That comment was rather less fictitious and aren't you all glad I didn't decide to blog that?)

After a few false starts, I have picked a moment when I'm sitting in a gay and lesbian friendly coffee shop in Rochester, USA. Its name, 'Equal Grounds', is testament to their ideology, although they stress this just applies to people, not to coffees, since they have an extensive menu of drinks that includes their own blend. The artsy interior, huge flat screen fireplace and funky mugs for the almond steamer I ordered are enough to reinvigorate even the (blogging) dead. 

Back in Japan, the teaching year has finished (the undergraduate year runs April to mid-February) and marks the end of my first year as a faculty member! Frankly, that alone puts any talk of Justin Bieber's sextuplets in the shade. It should have resulted in the MOST GLITZY BLOG POST OF ALL TIME, but I confused my laptop with a teddybear and went to sleep. 

Teddybear laptops. That's where we were at, people. 

Then there came a new dawn and I  remembered my real job was a researcher. Whereupon, I promptly took off back in Canada to write up projects with my old institute that I'd been treating as the unmentionable Frankenstein monster of an unloved bastard teacup pig for the last 12 months. 

Then I crossed the border and found a coffee shop.

Hi.

pergamond: ([Shrek] Puss-in-boots // how can you res)

I have a confession to make. 

I hate reading research papers. 

I'd love to blame this on the fact I'm dyslexic. But --since I read half of 'Game of Thrones' yesterday on my kindle-- I can't honestly say that really holds me back. 

It's not even that I don't want the information contained within their double-columned depths; I just find the majority of them turgid, somnical toilet roles.

I'm pretty sure this makes me a terrible astrophysicist. 

However, today I was out of excuses. I had a paper that was so overdue for publication, it could have predated Brian May's thesis. The introduction had to be drafted and for that, I had to find out what everyone else in my field had been doing while I was failing to form a world famous rock band. 

Unfortunately, I had the insurmountable problem of not possessing the right coloured highlighters with which to probably annotate the papers. Clearly, they needed to be purchased before any progress could be made and --since I wanted to be sure of a suitable selection-- the store to go to was the one on the other side of campus. If only I had remembered while I was eating lunch in the canteen next door. So sad.

Admit it. You're impressed with my ability to avoid work.

The highlighters in the shop were easy to locate and --in true Japan style-- they had every single shade imaginable to choose from. The difficulty of the selection was being proved by the elderly couple standing directly in front of the shelf trying every single pen.

Every. Single. Pen.

I have no idea what they were avoiding doing, but man! It must have been bad. 

Even the woman behind the cashier was hiding smiles as the couple kept turning away, selection in hand, only to change their minds and continue to block the display. 

I filled in the time by selecting a clear file. Frankly, I don't really understand clear files. They are plastic wallets but are too thin to take more than a few sheets of paper. For incomprehensible reasons, they are immensely popular in Japan and are sold in all different colours and designs. 

Finally, the elderly couple departed and I was able to pick up my highlighters. I tried to dawdle and convince myself that the EXACT SHADE OF BLUE was desperately important but … it just wasn't and I knew that. 

I was finally out of excuses. I returned to my office and promptly wrote half the introduction. Then I stored the papers I had printed out in the clear file. It already felt overfull. I looked down at the design I had chosen; it had a picture of a train track on it. Where is that track going? TO PAPER PUBLICATION LAND. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)
"You may have heard that you are included as a candidate for the MEXT grant. It will be a great honor and of huge merit in research fund if you are selected. I have to discuss with you, however, about some possible demerit you would face ... "

I sat back in my office chair and pondered this email. The grant in question I had applied for at the end of July; the details had been scant but it involved a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY for five years.

… or possibly the details hadn't been all that scant but I hadn't read further than the HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY.

Either way, it was apparent to all involved that I wasn't aware of the small print.


Money for academics comes in two types: First, there is my salary which I may squirrel away to spend on a stack of Pokemon plushies if I desire. Second, there is my research grant. This grant money broadly covers items such as paper publishing expenses, conference trips, laboratory or computer equipment and sometimes students. While my salary is part of my job (and I'd have to be sacked not to collect it), research grant money needs to be applied for through different national or international bodies. MEXT is the Ministry of Education in Japan.


'Small print' in this context usually applies to what the grant money can be spent on. For instance, my last grant allowed me to buy my computer but not an office chair.

Evidently, comfort was not considered essential for work.

This particular grant, however, turned out to be different.


"MEXT would take over your salary as well as supply a grant..." It was explained to me at a subsequent meeting with our faculty office. "… the University will be very pleased and this would be a prestigious award for you...
"

So everybody wins?


"… but you'd lose your pension contributions, your annual leave would be halved and you'd get no maternity benefits."


Except my mental health.


I opened my mouth to make a response and then closed it. Well, what does one really say to that?


The message was clear: people who receive this grant are supposed to RESEARCH NON-STOP UNTIL THEY DIE!


"However, the Japanese Government has made it compulsory for pregnant women to take 5 weeks maternity leave." The plot thickened as the details were expanded on. "But, on this grant, it is not possible to pay you."


"Well … uh …" I had a sudden image of nursing a small infant surrounded by cans of pickled eggs akin to wartime rations.


In truth, I had no plans to have a baby but the whole process did feel like a Borg-esque assimilation. You are now 3 of 5: research drone. There was however, some light at the end of the tunnel.


For a start, the chances of me actually getting the grant were slim. My name had been put forward by the University but my competition was researchers in every area of science all through the country. Let the medics eat the pickled eggs.


Secondly, while the rules surrounding grant administration were strict, a few backdoors might appear. Such as 'work days' at that …. World renowned… astrophysical... institute in the small Leicestershire village my parents happen to reside in.


Of course, I could turn the grant down but it would be rather hard to refuse a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY when there is no guarantee of getting funds through an alternative source.


FUNDING… SANITY… FUNDING… SANITY…


DAMN IT.


Feeling dazed, I returned to my office and promptly took a 90 minute lunch break in protest.


The final part in this stage of the saga came in an email yesterday evening:


"The dates of individual interview in Tokyo at set for September 21 and 22. They ask you to save the both days for the purpose intended in case you are selected."


Where am I planning to be on September 21 and 22? North Hokkaido on a holiday with my parents. I sniffed the air. I smell cubic space ships.

pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)

I had lost my student.

This was unfortunate, since I wanted to blame him for our group's analysis computer suddenly and mysteriously dying. 

Walking into the last office at the end of the hallway, I found my other student dutifully working. (This was quite impressive since I'm fairly sure each and every time my supervisor crept up on me, I was reading the BBC news). Stopping this productivity mid-flow, I asked if he knew the location of his counterpart.

"He saw a star last night," came the explanation.

… and so …? Left the field of astrophysics in shock? Was kidnapped by aliens? Made a wish for a real job and is even now on a flight to Tokyo? 

My present student made a whooshing motion with one arm. "He saw a…. comet?

He'd been crushed by a falling meteor. That would definitely make a fairly original excuse. 

Then a more likely explanation occurred to me. "Oh, he was watching a meteor shower; shooting stars?

"Yes," my student nodded as I filled in the correct English term. "All night."

Aha!

"So… why isn't he in?"

I'm a bad ass supervisor. 

pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)

"Look." I stood at the boundary between two areas in the Faculty of Science. In front of me was the building's foyer with rooms leading off for the office staff and mail room. Behind me was the ground floor of one of the adjoining twin towers; an 11 floored building containing physics and chemistry laboratories. My own office was on floor 9.

The foyer area was sparkling clean; gleaming floor tiles in a peachy marbled design reflected the attractive ceiling lamps and white washed walls. A central stained glass window depicting symbols of Hokkaido University splashed coloured patches of light across a collection of tables and chairs.

In the tower, a bulb in the dimly lit corridor crackled and went out.

"Why don't they clean past here?" I asked. "We get grimy grey flooring with foot deep grit embedded in each corner and there is clearly the ability to keep it nice!"

 "It's because there are experimentalists here." I was told. "It's not worth it."

Dirty experimental scientists.

I knew it.

Theory needs a new building.  


… hello

Aug. 9th, 2012 11:41 pm
pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

It was 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon when I finished the last part of my class preparation for the following day. Looking at the clock, I felt almost irrepressibly excited; I had finished early enough to go grocery shopping AND clean the bathroom!

… it was shortly after this that I realised I was failing at life. 

Arguably, the cat-biscuits-in-the-rice-cooker incident was an earlier indication but I've never been one for dwelling on events. 

I was planning to write long, insightful posts about my experiences as a first year faculty member. They were to be filled with thought provoking statements about the balance between research projects and teaching commitments; the rewards and difficulties, the pain and the pleasure. It would undoubtedly be nominated for a Nobel Prize and become a white paper for future developments in higher educational resources. 

... if only it were possible to move a touch further away from the odor of RAW HYSTERICAL PANIC that filled my mind each time I attempted to rationalise my situation into coherent thoughts. 

Guys. It comes down to this:

Teaching.

Is.

Hard.

Who knew? Well… teachers. But who believed them? No one. 

I am now half-way through the year (Japan is a half-year out of sink with the West, so I've completed one semester and taught one course and still have a second semester and a second course to go) and have been sent a cheerful reminder that my first tenure-track assessment will be next month. 

Picture the gateway into Mordor.

ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO MORDOR.

Because one must teach a class. Then, the gateway is behind you, that small box in the top left corner of the form is ticked and the rest of the assessment will be on the WORLD CLASS RESEARCH YOU'VE SURELY DONE TO FIND THE ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL.

Frankly, I'm holding out hopes for big marks allocated for keeping on top of things to the extent of not posing a significant health risk to the rest of the department.  

The saving grace is that I WAS in fact told life was gonna be this way. I was assured that first year faculty was tough but --unless you had the grievous misfortune of teaching a different class the following year-- the second year was significantly better and you might actually get to do research. Or shower. I'm hoping this means my review committee have seriously low expectations. 

Meanwhile I have six teaching-free weeks. I'm thinking 6 research papers. Or 60. Aim for the stars! Because if you fall short… I'll be doomed because I'm an astrophysicist. Darn. 

pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)

I stood in my new office and looked around. Everything was big. The room was big, the white board was big, the bookcases (and their number) were big, my desk was big and my desktop computer was big. 

Then there was me in the middle wearing jeans and a baggy 'grape Fanta' sweater. Ho hum.

Until last week I had been sharing an office. While slightly unusual for a faculty member, I had not minded the situation. My office mate was friendly, spoke great English and --perhaps more to the point-- was never there. He was involved in the design and construction of astronomical instruments and spent most of his time at various observing sites preparing his mechanical off-spring for their deployment. 

Unless observational astronomers are vastly different from their theoretical counterparts, I could see why getting a new instrument to the stage it could be safely left was a prolonged process. 

The previous owner of this office had retired. In academia speak, this meant he had accumulated the addition of 'emeritus' to his professor title and moved to a different building. As I examined what had been left in the drawers and cabinets, I wondered if retirement happened through choice or was something that was foisted upon you once your office contained a critical number of floppy disks. By the time it is my turn, that unit of measurement will probably be USB thumb drives. 

In addition to the large box of floppies, I discovered a collection of astrophysics books in Japanese and a variety of small magnets of the type used to pin cards and notes to metal surfaces. I picked one up and attached a card to my white board. There. Much more homely. 

Most of these magnets were a standard round shape in a solid colour such as blue or red. However, two were shaped as pink hearts and four were miniature lady birds. I raised an eyebrow. 

When a couple of students rolled into my office, I pointed out these surprisingly aesthetic additions. The ladybirds were promptly stacked on top of each other and attached, pointing outwards, to my board. It looked like an erect org--- Well, never mind. 

"In Japanese, we say 'tentoumushi'. 'Mushi' means 'bug'." I was told. "What are they in English?"

"Ladybirds," I supplied. "In UK English, 'Ladybird' and in US English 'Ladybug'."

"Bird?" came the surprised retort. "But they are not birds, they are bugs!"

I opened my mouth and then closed it. Then I scratched my head and examined the magnets. "Look, " I said at last. "It doesn't happen often, but sometimes the Americans get it right."

"And why lady? They are not ladies!"

I scowled. "Because ladies are pretty and delicate unlike boys."

Sometimes, even professors need to resort to school-yard insults. 

pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // all or nothing)
The theoretical astrophysics meeting at the National Observatory of Japan in Tokyo is primarily aimed at graduate students and as such, is one of the few science conferences to be held in Japanese. Despite this sounding like a recipe for unimaginable PAIN, CONFUSION and DISTRESS, I was chilled out for two reasons:

Firstly, I was informed my primary directive was to present myself to the Japan astronomy circuit which I pretty much achieved by walking through the door and eating sushi at the evening dinner.

Secondly, it was a theorist meeting. The talks were BOUND to have pretty movies. Words are so overrated. They are what observers need to justify strange grey blobs.

In fact, attending the talks turned out to be a bizarre walk through the babyland world of language learning. Before we left, I had asked my head of group whether the slides were likely to be in English, an occurrence that seemed common practice in the seminars I had attended in Hokkaido University. "Some might be" was the response that was elicited. By this, I presumed a few speakers might do their slides in English and others in Japanese.

This was not the case.

The reality was a completely random distribution of English and Japanese slides within the same talk. A presentation might be given entirely in Japanese but the list of concluding remarks written in English. Others had a sudden English slide buried in their midst and still more were written in Japanese throughout but would have a short paragraph or single phrase such as "Radial migration of disk stars" appearing unexpectedly half-way down a slide. 

No one else seemed to consider this the slightest bit surprising.

Possibly, I reasoned, presenters had borrowed slides from other talks they had previously given in English. However, this didn't really explain the language switch mid-slide. That more resembled the writer getting up for a cup of coffee, becoming momentarily inspired by a line of Macbeth, and returning to type up his presentation in English.

An additional help to my comprehension was the use of katakana. Katakana is a Japanese phonetic script for writing foreign words, a catagory that includes many scientific terms that have been adopted rather than translated. Reading katakana, however, isn't the most straight forward process since while it's often transcribing an English word.... it's English on crack.

"シミュレーション" for example, reads literally "shimyureeshon". It's only by experimentally dropping 'U's and switching around a few 'R's for 'L's and all the while pretending you are eating a gigantic gob stopper does it become clear that it reads "simulation". Likewise, "ユニバース" ("yunibaasu") can just about be crushed into "universe". Similar feats allowed me to extract "dark halo" (mysterious things around galaxies), "dust" (everywhere), "dead zone" (for planets, not people), "Andromeda" (nearby galaxy) and "model" (unrealistic creation that allows the opportunity to produce a follow-up paper). Oddly, one presenter obviously became tired of katakana and just plonked "thick disk" in the middle of his sentence in English.

In terms of understanding what was actually spoken I found my comprehension was inversely proportional to the usefulness of the phrase. Pretty much all nouns and verbs escaped me but I was right on the ball regarding terms such as "there is...", "yes, that's right" and "and after that we...". Basically, if you could take it out of the sentence without affecting the meaning, I was all over it.

The program for the three day meeting was written in Japanese but my head of group had run it through an online translator. The bot for this had done a surprisingly impressive job although I think my favourite talk title is definitely: "Innovation of work called programming". Appropriately, this presentation concluded the conference.

Confessions

Nov. 3rd, 2011 10:11 am
pergamond: ([Shrek] Puss-in-boots // how can you res)
Confession time: I dropped my Japanese communication class.

This wasn't because it was DESTROYING MY LIFE WITH ITS HORRIFIC, SOUL DESTROYING CLASS EXERCISES AND MEAN GIRLS.

Although that did make the decision rather less regrettable.

The problem was I wasn't doing any astrophysics; the job for which I was being paid. It occurred to me that sooner or later this was going to end badly.

The full Japanese course at Hokkaido University for international members consists of seven 90 minute weekly classes; three grammar lessons on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, two lessons on the Kanji writing system on Tuesday and Thursday and two communication lessons running after Kanji. Each of those classes has homework for the next lesson which usually comprises of a test.

Amusingly, this was the general language course. There was also an 'intensive' version for students who REALLY wanted to get serious.

Each class is excellent and --for all my complaints-- I was learning a lot in communication even if I had to sit in a dark and silent room for half an hour afterwards. However, add to that a weekly 3 hour group meeting and sessions with my student and my own research became something I tinkered with for a few hours a week. I began to suspect I spent longer cleaning my teeth than writing actual code whereas previously, that activity had only been surpassed by the time I spent on facebook.

Clearly, this was very wrong.

I was also in work at 8 am and left just shy of midnight. Then I was admitted to hospital with a migraine. Could there be a connection? I doubted it but the potential that this could lead to a reduction in internet procrastination was concerning.

So now I'm down one class. To demonstrate that I COULD HAVE STAYED IF I HAD WANTED TO I wrote my email of explanation to my teacher in Japanese. At the very least, this proved I could always resort to a notepad and paper to get my point across at Starbucks if necessary. This had the unfortunate consequence of her writing back to me in Japanese whereupon I had to resort to an online translator to ensure she hadn't told me to burn in the fiery pits of hell. Since the Japanese are unfailingly polite, I'm still slightly unsure about this.

I did promise I would enrol again in April. I think she told me to get to it.
pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)
If you select the paper work type of lectures, you can limit number of students in your class and you will get a teaching assistant.

I was discussing the undergraduate course I would be teaching next semester with my head of group over email. The basic idea of the lecture series was to teach an introductory physics course in English, available to all students enrolled in the university. However, there were options concerning the structure of the course that I was struggling to understand, having not gone through the Japanese higher education system myself. I wrote back:

Could you please explain what a "paper work type of lecture" is?

My best guess at present was that there was a course type that shunned written material and presented information through interpretive dance. I wondered if I could get a student to leap through a wall in a demonstration for quantum mechanics. A few minutes later, I got my answer:

"Paper work type of lecture" means that in this lecture a professor spends his class time to make training of student's ability to write their papers, presentations or something.

.... whereas in the other type of lecture, the professor just sets up a game of hangman and doesn't bother with anything educational? This seemed implausible. I walked next door to see if I could extract a more complete explanation but failed. The joys of a language barrier!

Just when I'd resigned myself to showing my class how to play 'Portal' and leaving it at that, my head of group came back with a more complete explanation. It turned out that there two types of courses at Hokkaido University; the ones I would refer to as 'core' and were needed to graduate in a particular field and others that were more general interest and could be taken by students in any discipline. This second category (which was the one to which my course would belong) was again broken into two variations: courses where the professor stood at the front and delivered material to a passive class and another with a workshop competent that involved a level of audience participation. The course I had proposed included presentations from the students on different scientific topics and would therefore belong in this workshop or "paper work" type lecture.

So no computer games but no jumping through solid walls either. Perhaps it is for the best.

pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)
The problem with language --apart from it not always being English-- is that it is more than just words. This means that even the best non-native speaker can sometimes convey a meaning quite contradictory to the one meant.

One such example occurred in my first research meeting with my new group at Hokkaido University. We were discussing a project to model a small spiral galaxy with the astrophysics simulation code I had been using in my work and had now brought to Hokkaido.

"We would like to use a rotating reference frame," our head of group told me.

Yeah? Well, I'd like a pony.

The desired numerical jiggery-pokery which would allow the galaxy to remain stationary during the simulation while retaining the same properties as if it were rotating, was no minor task. It was especially difficult for this particular type of code. To implement it would take months of coding, testings, more coding and frankly, I'd probably screw it up.

However, what was really being asked of me was:

"Is it possible to use a rotating reference frame?"

Which has quite a different tone to it. In the first case, it sounded like a politely phrased demand for the project; the equivalent of telling an architect you wanted a revolving restaurant on the 43rd floor of your new building when he had been drawing up plans for a log cabin. By contrast, the second option is simply a request for information, with no implication that a negative answer will result in the project being unsatisfactory.

So far, I have been able to remember this likely translation error in time to stall voicing my equine desires. Answering the inquiry as if it had been phrased in the second way produced an entirely satisfactory response.

Hopefully, time will allow this to be the automatic understanding so that I don't have to mentally go through selecting breed, coat colour and wing span for my new steed. Not least because Japan might just produce such a mount and then I'd have an awful lot of computer coding to do.

pergamond: ([Bleach] Rukia // fed up)
Dear Analysis Code,

I appreciate that you think I don't understand you. In fact, you're quite right. I freely admit that I was hoping my knowledge of your inner workings would have to extend no further than that needed for a paragraph in the 'Numerics' section of our paper. You see, I am not your author. It would be best to consider me more like a step-parent. The hands-off distant kind that took on the role after you'd left for college. I was hoping that your part had been played in the analysis of my simulation and now all I must do is gather together your outputs for presentation. I did not intend to run you again nor indeed did your sculptor, since he had left the field altogether.

Perhaps this hurt. Maybe you felt neglected as you were left to corrupt and your modification time-stamp slowly age. Or did you feel guilt, wondering repeatedly if it were your internal logic loops that drove your developer out of academia? Having now worked with you, I admit this cannot be ruled out. Whatever the reason, it has become clear to me in the last 24 hours that your revenge has been planned a while.

How you must have laughed when I started rummaging through your files. It was true that you were needed, desperately needed, once again. Without you, the paper and the months of work I had put into it would be wasted. The files I had been using were wrong and the updated analysis had never been completed. I needed to do it myself. I needed you.

You had me over a barrel, Code, and I think you knew this. Not for you though, were obvious scenes of displeasure. It would have been too simple to just not compile, throw up 'library not found' errors or run out of memory. They were all problems I was expecting and therefore beneath you. Instead you compiled, you ran smoothly and outputted the expected data while I held my breath. I thought I had been victorious and my delight was great. Then, after four different operations, I looked at one of the results.

It didn't look totally wrong.

But it didn't look totally right.

In fact, I might have passed it by in my elation had I not being paying careful attention. I believe this was your plan. To force me to re-complete the paper only to later realise the results were still incorrect. It did not work. I saw through your fake productions and realised there had been a error. But how was this possible? It's true this was a different data set, but the changes were marginal compared to what you had run before. The main difference was there were more simulation times to analyse. Did you realise this, Code? Is that why you decided to strike? You knew you would have to iterate through not 29 outputs but 73? Did you think that maybe I was not overly enthused by the prospect of this either?

DID YOU THINK OF ME AT ALL?

Yes. Yes you did, and you demanded vengeance.

You knew the only way to get to the bottom of this problem was to read your source files. All of them. And discover exactly what made you tick. You didn't want to be used, you wanted to be understood. I confess, I was only in this for the publication. That was never enough for you.

So here we are, you and me. Right where we were at 10:30 pm last night. If we're still here at the weekend I may burn you onto a DVD just so I can throw you out the door. Perhaps you think that if I understand how you work, I'll use you again. It is a ruthless plan that I've come to associate with you. Just so you know though, Code, the success of this is intimately tied to this paper being accepted for publication. If it isn't, I swear that I will hunt down every last version of you and delete them from disk.

You are not the only one who can be vengeful.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
"I can never trust you again. My entire perception of you has changed."

How exactly do you respond to something like that? I finished my mouthful of food and tried to ascertain what horrific act of wanton cruelty I had committed in the preceding ten minutes. Apart from my lunch containing chicken, there were no obvious possibilities. And if my (apparently erstwhile) friend had a particular affinity to feathered fowl well ... he should have mentioned it before I reached for the second half of the sandwich.

"Have you not moved on from the conversation we were having at the start of lunch?" I guessed.

"No!" He had stopped eating to stare in horror across the table. "I still can't believe it!"

The lunch-table topic had been the question of whether you should be legally obliged to reveal to your partner that you have committed a serious crime, if you met them after you'd been freed from jail. My opinion was no, relationships are private and not a matter in which the government had a right to interfere. If you had served your time in jail and been released, you should have the same rights as any other innocent citizen. My friend's opinion focused on concern that a late revelation of such an act after, for example, marriage and children, would ruin the life of the ex-criminal's partner. He pointed out that there was some precedent for his view in the existence of the sex offenders list, which proved that it was not universally considered that serving your time in jail was always sufficient.

"You might be hiding something from me that would affect me negatively if I found out!" he accused.

"Well, we clearly should have hidden this from you," cheerfully remarked another friend who agreed with me. "Then you wouldn't be accusing us now!"

"You could be right though," someone else commented sinisterly. "Actually they've both served concurrent life sentences."

"True," I agreed. The tomato juice from my sandwich had started to run down my hands. I rose to go and locate a cloth. "They're called postdocs."

Superhero

Oct. 1st, 2010 12:16 am
pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)
So last weekend I single handedly defended the physics department from having EVERY SINGLE COMPUTER stolen. And probably all the chalk too. Either that, or I just blew my career right out the water by declaring that an eminent professor was a bounder and a cad. One of the two.

My office mate was leaving. Her thesis was defended and the finished product stacked neatly on her empty desk ready for submission. (It would be later hidden by our advisor in a last-minute psychological experiment ... possibly suggested by me. BUT HE DID IT.) I had come in on Saturday afternoon to help her move her books, papers and two towels (I have no idea) back to her apartment to be packed for her move to California next week. 

As I approached the door to the main building a figure started towards me. He has been loitering on the opposite side of the road, but now he hurried across to stand a mere half step behind me as I fumbled for my keys. When I opened the door, his hand shot out over my shoulder to catch the edge and pull it open.

Boldly, I turned to look the man squarely in the eyes. I admit, he didn't exactly look like your stereotypical robber. Wearing a suit and being significantly over 70 he looked more like ... I dunno .... some distinguished Professor Emeritus.  But I was sure it was just a guise! Beneath that grandfatherly exterior lived a World of Warcraft fanatic, desperate to get his hands on our computing cluster for more power and probably the sword of Azeroth. 

"Could I see some ID?" I inquired, a steely look in my eye.

"Excuse me?" replied gentleman, a.k.a. Horde Undead Rogue


"I can't really let you into the building with seeing some ID, if you don't have your key," I explained, pleasantly. Ha! Where's your sword now, buster?

"I'm a distinguished Professor Emeritus!" the gentleman protested.

Oops.

Okay, I admit, he didn't actually say 'distinguished' but it was totally implied. I prayed he wasn't some famous guy in my field who I had just completely failed to recognise.

It was times like this, I wished I'd focussed on astro-particle cosmology. Then the most famous person in my field would be Stephen Hawking. Dead easy to spot and I could totally have made a get away long before he'd have had the chance to accost me in the doorway of a building.  As it was I stood slightly awkwardly while the Professor Emeritus dug in his wallet for his university ID.

Admittedly, I didn't actually check the name on the card wasn't "Horde Undead Rogue" but it was so totally time to leave. I apologised and scooted off down the corridor at a pace that ensured he would never discover what sub-department I was in.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Robot plasma ball)
The Physics department is going to publish my blog.

Well, not absolutely exactly but near enough for me to be highly entertained. Possibly for weeks.

This rather unlikely scenario was triggered when I saw that the University of Florida had started a department blog. They included news from their research groups, awards and achievements of department members and details of other projects that people were involved in. All in all, it was a great idea and I therefore decided to STEAL IT INSTANTLY AND MAKE IT MY OWN.

So, armed with the Florida blog as a template, an example entry I'd drafted for my own research group and a suggested plan for future posts, I went to see our outreach coordinator.

"I like it," she said, nodding. "But I'm thinking it might be more memorable as a personal perspective on the department. Especially if it were coming from a postdoc, since we don't often hear much from them."

"So ....," I said slowly. "You mean .... like my blog?"

"You keep a blog?"

I emailed her the URL. It transpired to be exactly what she had in mind, although with a focus more on physics and less on stylish footwear for your favourite bovine. I have no idea why.

Walking back upstairs, I joined my research group for our weekly meeting.

"I am going to do a personal blog for the department," I announced as I poured hot water into my tea cup.

"You could write all sorts of things about the faculty!" someone pointed out.

This immediately provoked a discussion that was engaging, entertaining and ended abruptly by me, least my adviser see the folly of the situation and cut the idea dead in the water.

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," he said in a relaxed tone. "I would just read it and if you had written anything unsuitable ... I'd cut your funding."

I stopped with my mug half-way to my mouth.

"You could write good things about the department!" one of my friends cut in with a swift attempt at damage control.

"Yes, that's true," my adviser picked up on the idea. "I could suggest topics I wanted to be covered."

".... and my funding...?" I inquired, delicately.

".... could be negotiated."

Well, it might not be BBC prime time but apparently I have ratings.
pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // !)
With the weekend looming, the organisers at the Aspen Center for Physics gave a short presentation on hiking in the local area. The sun was shining as we entered the auditorium, lighting up inviting green hills up which a stream of gondolas were gaily making their way. Everyone from the elderly professors to the young researchers clutching babies was keen to get outside.

The speaker was a retired Physicist from Chicago who started his speech with a clear pronouncement that he proceeded to repeat:

"If you want to go hiking, you should find someone who has been before. What we call an expert."

I looked sceptically out at the landscape around one of America's most up-scale tourist centres. Of course, all hiking had risks, but the walks around Aspen were not known for being technically difficult. Our guide however, was most insistent. A waterproof coat was essential if you were even looking in the direction of a mountain. As was a topologically detailed map, a cell phone (although this wouldn't work, so relying on it would result in DEATH) and you should inform at least three people and a lamppost where you were going and when you were expected back.

It was sound advice but presented with a strong side-dollop of terror, which swiftly became the main course as our host warmed up to the theme.

For Cinderella, the time of destruction was midnight, but for us hikers in Aspen, it was midday. Be up on the mountain after this time and a lightening storm would descend upon you, causing your hair to stand on end and leaving you nowhere to run. Then you would be electrocuted and promptly eaten by a bear. The end.

These instructions were followed by a tale of warning about a Physicist from the centre who went missing for three days. Apparently, despite having a topological map and other appropriate equipment, he became lost. Because he was a loner, no one noticed he was gone until his wife called the Sheriff's office after not hearing from him for two nights.

That could be YOU, you friendless socially awkward geeks

was the unvocalised message.

After fifteen minutes, a blue booklet listing walks was waved at us and our speaker departed with a cheerful, "I strongly encourage you all to get out and about!"

There was stunned silence in the auditorium.

This event was directly followed by a seminar on 'crumpling'. Yep, that's right. An entire scientific talk on crumpling paper. Or Physicists. Somehow it was oddly appropriate.
pergamond: ([Random] Quantum box)
My area of research in Astronomy involves computer simulations of individual galaxies. There are a few groups working on similar projects to me, but there is one person in particular whose research is so close that she shall henceforth be known as ARCH RIVAL #1. ARCH RIVAL #1 not only develops similar models, but she is also British and my exact contemporary, graduating the same year I did, albeit from a different university.

Even though we are employed on different continents (North America is MINE bitches, but one day I will retake Europe), the similarity of our work means that we frequently attend the same conferences. Currently, we are both in Aspen. In June, we were both in Barcelona. April saw us in Florida and last summer in Italy. You get the idea. Other scientists confuse us, sometimes using the wrong name even when facing the person in question.

So what was I to do when said ARCH RIVAL #1 had her birthday during this workshop? Clearly, a multi-step plan was in order:

1. First, announce said birthday to an entire room of Astronomers during the formal discussion we were jointly leading this morning.

2. Buy a cake.

3. Fill the birthday girl's slice with a slow acting poison that takes 72 HOURS to take affect, knowing that she reads my blog.

4. Laugh evilly.

5. Repeat (4) to taste.

WHAHAHAHAHAHA. 

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