Monday, December 31, 2012

Adventures in Driving on the Other Side of the Road

So, we bought a car a couple of weeks ago. Actually it is a green Ford Territory -- an SUV that can seat up to seven, but realistically can hold five people comfortably (so when guests come we can transport everyone to interesting sites outside of Perth).

The other day the three of us all got in the car and Jeff and I practiced driving it around the neighborhood. There are three challenges we are trying to overcome. The simplest is the fact that this is a new vehicle and very large as well so we have to get our bearings on the dimensions of it. The second somewhat difficult concept is the roundabout. Yes, there are occasional roundabouts in the US, and I have driven in Europe where they are pervasive, but the etiquette for them is a little different here. For one thing, you use your turn signal to indicate your ultimate destination: if I enter with the intention to go left, I turn on my left indicator; right, my right indicator; and straight, no indicator at all.

But the most difficult thing is of course the fact that we have to drive on the left side of the road. This can really make your brain hurt. Even though we have been passengers on the left side of the road since July, our brains are not fully wrapped around this concept. And there are a lot of automatic behaviors that you have to change.

For example, the driver is in the seat on the right side of the car. So the rear-view mirror is to your left, not your right. When you are backing out of the driveway, you have to look left for the traffic in the nearest lane. Right turns are the long, lane-crossing turns. (I practiced a lot of right turns in our driving practice session.)

Another thing is that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel, and we keep hitting the wipers instead. At least this just makes me giggle.

Finally, Australian roads are weird. Although they are generally wide like American roads, they tend to have obstacles to slow traffic (or perhaps just to terrorize novice American drivers, I'm not sure). There tend to be jogs in the otherwise straight roads, and curbs jutting out for no reason. I hit one of the errant curbs on a major traffic artery, but luckily nothing bad happened (other than scaring the driver and passengers).

Getting Back into Writing

Hello, my vast fan base!

I took a very long break from blogging, mostly inadvertantly. One day just led to another, and then another, and then a week, and then a month, and then a couple of months...

I have mixed feelings about the whole blogging thing. It requires a lot of time and effort to do, but I really enjoy reading my old entries and recalling what I was up to, and what I was thinking about. But when I am feeling stressed, I tend to just retreat inside myself and not have anything to say to the rest of the world. And there is a domino effect, where the less I write, the less I can think of to say. Also, when I go too long without writing, I feel obligated to catch the blog up on what I haven't said, and then I end up feeling overwhelmed and putting it off even more.

It is a new year, and I am thinking I will use that excuse to just start anew and pretend like there is nothing to make up. Hopefully I will write more, although I am not making any promises.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Adventures in Western Australia

Sorry, my vast fan base -- long time, no write! Things have just been that busy!

In addition to living and working here, we have decided that it is important to take advantage of our location and (occasionally at least) be tourists. Last month, we went on a really cool tour. We took a tour like the actual tourists, in a group, on a bus, and with a tour guide. It was no ordinary tour, though.

Our transportation was a 4-wheel-drive bus. It was really tall and you had to ascend some very steep steps to get in.

Our chariot awaits!

It looks tall enough in that picture, but for scale, here it is with Vinny:

4WD bus with tall five-year-old for scale.
 First, we went to Caversham Wildlife Park and got to see the animals:

Vinny feeding a kangaroo
After a stop in the lobster-fishing town of Cervantes for lunch, we went on to Nambung National Park, home of the Pinnacles, some very strange and very ancient rock formations.

First views of the Pinnacle formations (click for a bigger view).
Panorama of some pinnacles (click for a bigger view).

A pinnacle viewed through another pinnacle.

I thought this looked like a Picasso pinnacle!

The pinnacles were truly amazing natural formations, and I really enjoyed our time there. But soon it was time to load back up in the bus so we could go to a gigantic sand dune near the town of Lancelin, where our bus took advantage of its four-wheel-drive capabilities and drove around on the sand dunes (with us inside, except for the last turn, where Jeff got off and took the below picture).

Four-wheeling bus on the sand dunes
Then, we got to go sand-boarding, which as it turned out was really fun for Vinny. I didn't enjoy it as much as he did, probably because I ended up getting sand in places that I did not think it was possible to get sand.
Vinny sandboarding for the first time

But a good time was had by all, and I'm really glad we took the tour!

We've also gone several times now to King's Park, a 1000-acre park in Perth. There is lots to do and see there. The first time, we went to the "Lotterywest Federation Walkway," a large suspended bridge from which you have a great view of the park and the city. The last time we were there, we went to the Naturescape area, which is a natural bushland area for kids. Vinny had a blast climbing the lookout towers, climbing on ropes, and wading in the water.

In the future, we are going to explore more of this enormous and diverse state. Western Australia encompasses nearly 40% of the Australian continent, so there is lots to see. Our tourism will be facilitated by purchasing a car, which we will finally be able to do next month when we close on our house in Tennessee.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Adventures in a New Culture

It's really interesting how in many ways, everything is very similar to the United States. But in many other ways, it is completely different. Here are a few things that are just different.

  • The other day, I accidentally pushed the button on the bus that indicates that it should stop at the next stop. When I realized what my errant elbow had done, I used my best manners and apologized to the bus driver: "I'm sorry, sir!" He looked at me like I had just flown in from outer space. After discussing with my colleagues, I learned that Australians don't call anybody sir, and that in fact the bus driver may have thought I was making fun of him. Hopefully my strong accent clued him in that I am just culturally inept.
  • The Australian accent is very distinct, and differs from anything I have ever really heard or spoken. I can speak like a Kentish schoolgirl from living in England as a child, but I just can't figure out how to do the Australian accent. Vinny, on the other hand, is picking it up. One of the most distinctive sounds that Australians make is a very distinct "o", such as in the word "No." It was not a sound that I could even attempt to imitate -- all my tries came out totally wrong. Vinny, on the other hand, picked it up perfectly. So the other night I asked him how you do it. He helpfully tutored me on it -- first you make an "urr" sound, then you make your mouth do an "ee" sound. By the end of it I could make that sound. But it still seems like an awful lot of effort when you could just purse your lips into an o shape and be done with it.
  • The other day, somebody was celebrating something and brought in a "white chocolate mud cake." I was bewildered that one could make a mud cake from white chocolate, but whatever. I expected something gooey (like Mississippi mud cake!) but it turned out to be a free-standing round cake. It was very delicious but nothing like I expected. I asked the person who brought the cake what made it a mud cake. He said it was because they used oil instead of butter to make the cake. I told him I think of a cake made with oil instead of butter as a chiffon cake. And then I described what I thought of as a mud cake, and promised to make one whenever we get settled into our house. (Yes, our stuff did arrive and we are slowly making our way through it -- but that is a story for another time.)
  • Another interesting thing is that in our new house, the toilet is in a completely separate room from the rest of the things you would associate with a bathroom. So you have to go into a different room to wash your hands after you use the potty. This is a fairly typical arrangement from what I have seen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Adventures in Different Things

Sorry for the hiatus, folks! I really had intended to do more posting to this blog once we got to Australia, because there would be so many interesting things to talk about. And there are! It's just that... well, let me just tell you what's been going on.

I started my new job about a month ago. It has been going well. I like my new colleagues and I'm pretty happy at work so far.

We scrambled around and found a place to live. It is hard in Perth because there is more demand for housing than supply. So you end up having to bid for a place to live, offering to pay more rent than they are asking. We were finally successful at that and took possession of a place effective August 1.

But, there were a few issues with our household goods. First, they tried to charge extra to give us all our stuff. Luckily, my new boss is pretty hard-nosed and told them no way can you charge more, and eventually, they agreed. But, our stuff is still not here yet. So my new boss graciously agreed to extend our temporary housing another week, and then another... I told him if it doesn't come by the end of this week, we will just camp out. Really. Because it is getting ridiculous!

We don't have a car, and have no immediate plans to buy one, at least not until our house in Tennessee sells. So far we have been getting by with walking and riding the bus. This has worked surprisingly well. Our temporary housing and our new place are both within easy walking distance of the grocery store. From our new place you can see Vinny's school.

Once we had our lease, we signed Vinny up for school. He's been going to school for about 3 weeks now. He's had two weeks of swimming lessons through his school, which is not something you would get through the schools back home. He's in pre-primary, which is equivalent to Kindergarten in the US. (They call pre-school Kindergarten here.)

So far we have not suffered too much from homesickness. Of course we miss our family and friends, but the internet has really helped us to keep up with what is going on with them. We miss some foods back home (such as root beer, Reese's cups, and buttermilk biscuits in a can) but have discovered others that we now enjoy (such as Tim Tams).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stream-of-Consciousness Bullets of Getting There

We made it to Australia on Wednesday! It was a long journey. Here are a few stream-of-consciousness bullets about the trip and the past few days:
  • Vinny had never been on a plane before. I was worried that he would not like it. He enjoyed our short flight from Lexington to Dallas, thank goodness. But then I was worried he would not enjoy the flight from Dallas to Brisbane, which is literally the longest flight possible with current commercial aviation technology.
  • I need not have worried. They had an in-flight entertainment system which kept him occupied for the whole flight.
  • I, however, was ready to get off that plane. The jerk in front of me kept his seat reclined the entire flight, which put my in-flight entertainment system so close to my face that it was almost too close to view. Thank goodness they made him sit up during the meals!
  • Speaking of meals, they fed us well. Even during our cross-continental flight from Sydney to Perth.
  • I was really disappointed that, when we went through immigration, customs, and quarantine, I did not see any of my favorite people from "Border Security: Australia's Front Line." I was also disappointed that nobody wanted to see the list of the contents of our bags that we had so painstakingly compiled. But, it was probably for the best, because we had a fairly tight connection.
  • We almost missed our flight to Perth because we almost left Vinny's car booster seat behind. We forgot that we had it checked in as a seventh bag. By the time we figured it out, we had gone through customs and were rechecking our bags for our flight to Perth. Jeff went to the baggage help desk and retrieved it, and he finally got it just in time that we could run through the airport and be the last people to board the flight to Perth, which had fortunately been delayed.
  • Once we arrived, we were met by a friend who is also an American woman living in Perth. She is the friend of a friend at my former workplace (still feels weird to call it that). I had spoken with her a lot over the internet and corresponded with her via email, so it was really nice to meet her in person. She was very friendly and very helpful.
  • On Thursday, we went into Perth to get bus passes and phones. We purchased the bus passes and then we ended up using them to go to a post office where they had some particular phones that were unlocked and could be used on any network and were on clearance. 
  • Yup, we went to the post office to buy phones. Turns out you can buy lots of strange things at the post office. Perhaps the most bizarre was that last week they had a special on sewing machines.
  • We have decided that we are going to try to go without a car for as long as possible. It is doable here. We are staying in temporary housing for 4 weeks, and it is about 1/2 km to the nearest grocery store. It is possible to take the bus to where I work. We are looking for similarly walkable longer-term housing.
  • They use the metric system here. I am still trying to get used to it. I do have some standards though, and I will be spelling the base unit of length as "meter" until the day I die.
  • On Friday, we got a bank account and I had to sign some papers for my soon-to-be workplace. Jeff and Vinny got to meet some of my future colleagues and see where I will be working.
  • On Saturday, our American friend took us to the biggest farmers market I have ever seen. It was amazing, especially considering it is winter right now in Australia. We bought a whole chicken, some potatoes, carrots, mandarin oranges and apples, and a liter of Gurnsey milk. We cooked the chicken and potatoes for dinner, and flavored the chicken with salt and pepper and a lemon we had picked in a nearby yard. The lemon was huge -- so big I could only use half of it on the chicken.
  • Speaking of winter, I am having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that it is winter. To me, it feels like we must be in the mountains. That explains the cool weather (because it is really not winter weather from my perspective). Although the lemon tree, and the gigantic aloe bush, and all the other strange vegetation contradict this theory.
  • I start work on Monday. I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Adventures in Temperature Conversions

You may remember the complicated Fahrenheit-to-Celsius and Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion formulas. Or you may not remember them, but you may remember the fact that they are complicated, and involve 5/9 and 9/5, and adding or subtracting 32. But do you add (or is it subtract?) first, and then multiply, or do you multiply first, and by which factor?

Worry no longer, my friends! There is a much easier way to do it. The only formula you will need is the following:
T1 = (T2+40)*factor - 40.
The end.

This formula works for both temperature scales (so {T1,T2} = {F,C} or {C,F}). The only thing you need to remember is whether factor is 5/9 or 9/5. But that is not so hard: there are more degrees between freezing and boiling in Fahrenheit than Celsius, so when you convert to Fahrenheit, you need to use the bigger number, 9/5. Likewise, when converting to Celsius, use 5/9.

Does it really work? Yes! Let's do some examples.

Body temperature is 37 C or 98.6 F. Can we convert to those numbers? Let's start with C to F:
F = (C+40)*9/5 - 40
F = (37+40)*9/5 - 40 = 77*9/5 - 40 = 138.6 - 40 = 98.6
Now what about F to C?
C = (F+40)*5/9 - 40 
C = (98.6+40)*5/9 - 40 = 138.6*5/9 - 40 = 77 - 40 = 37
You can derive the traditional formulas for temperature conversion from this simple one.
F = (C+40)*9/5 - 40 = 9/5*C + 40*9/5 - 40 = 9/5*C + 72 - 40 = 9/5*C + 32
C = (F+40)*5/9 - 40 = 5/9*(F+40 - 9/5*40) = 5/9*(F + 40 - 72) = 5/9*(F - 32)
As easy as this formula is, it's still non-trivial to do in your head. So my sister Rachel told me an easy thing to remember about Celsius temperature ranges when it comes to the weather:

  • 40+ C: extremely hot (=104+ F)
  • 30-39 C: very hot (=86-102 F)
  • 20-29 C: comfortable-hot (=68-84 F)
  • 10-19 C: cool-comfortable (=50-66 F)
  • 0-10 C: chilly (=32-42 F)
So the ideal you'd be most comfortable in is the range around 20-25 Celsius (68-77 F). From there you can see how much the temperature deviates from the ideal. (In Perth, once every couple of years it dips down to freezing, so I did not go any lower on the scale.)

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Adventures in Fibonacci Numbers

You may remember the Fibonacci numbers from math class. The Fibonacci sequence of numbers is easy to generate: begin with 0, 1. Then add the two previous numbers to get the next number in the sequence:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...
If you take the ratio of consecutive numbers in the sequence, you can see an interesting pattern:
0, 1, 0.5, 0.667, 0.6, 0.625, 0.615, 0.619, 0.6176, 0.61818, 0.617977, 0.618056...
Graphing these numbers, we can see that they seem to be honing in to one number -- increasingly accurate lower and upper bounds to a number that turns out to be roughly 0.61803, or more exactly 2/(sqrt(5)+1), the reciprocal of the Golden Ratio.

(In the above graph, I cut out the first few ratios so we could see the trend better.)

There are a lot of cool applications to for the Fibonacci sequence. It is often found in nature -- for example, the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower head, or the unfurling of a fern. There are also computer science data storage techniques, such as Fibonacci heap, that are derived from the sequence.

But a really cool use of Fibonacci numbers that I learned recently is the conversion between miles and kilometers. As it turns out, the ratio of miles to kilometers (0.621371192 mi/km) is pretty close to the ratio to which sequential Fibonacci numbers converge (0.61803), so we can use the sequence of Fibonacci numbers to roughly convert from miles to kilometers and vice versa. If we want to convert 3 miles to kilometers, for example, we simply take the next number in the Fibonacci sequence, so 3 miles is about 5 kilometers. (Doing the actual math, it's 4.828, which is pretty close.) Similarly, if we want to convert 13 kilometers to miles, then we take the previous number in the Fibonacci sequence, so 13 km is about 8 miles. (Again, doing the actual math, we obtain 8.078, so not bad!)

If you have a number that is not in the Fibonacci sequence, you can simply break it down into two Fibonacci numbers (there's a theorem that says you can do that for any integer!), and do the conversion on those two numbers and add the results back together. So, if you want to know what 60 miles is in kilometers, you break down 60 into 5 + 55, and convert them both to kilometers, so 8 + 89, to obtain an answer of 97 km. The actual answer is 96.56 km, so not too bad!

I plan to use this handy conversion factor in Australia to help me transition into understanding distance in kilometers. But also because it is just about the coolest thing I have seen in a long time!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Speaking of the strict Australian quarantine laws, some friends of mine alerted me to the existence of a show called "Border Security: Australia's Front Line." You can find playlists of it on youtube. Jeff and I have become addicted.

It's about the people who work in customs, quarantine, and immigration, and it's very interesting. We've learned a lot about what to do when we enter Australia. In particular, it seems that on the card you fill out before debarking the plane, you want to check "yes" on questions like "Do you have any food?" -- even if you don't think you have any -- because if it turns out that you do have some but didn't check that box, you face a fine of $220.

In the early seasons of the show, there is an immigration officer named Peter who seems to always get to the bottom of things and figure people out. (Of course, the whole thing is edited so naturally we never see any officers screw up!) I think if I get selected for questioning and it turns out to be Peter, I will just confess everything wrong that I've ever done ("I once blew a red light, and I should have gotten a ticket but I didn't!" "I teased my sister and made her cry!" etc.) and hope for the best.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Adventures in an Empty House

We are camping out in our house now. The movers came the week before last to pack everything up and get our belongings on the road ahead of us. It will take a minimum of two months for the 40-foot shipping container to make it to Australia, so we wanted to give it a head start. We're sleeping on mats and sleeping bags on the floor, and eating with plasticware.

The empty house is kind of sad -- but beautiful, because we have fixed it up for sale. We repaired a lot of things, had the interior and exterior repainted, had new flooring installed in the master bathroom and in the basement -- things that I now wish we had done years ago, because it is a much better house than we had been living in all these years, and we don't get to enjoy the benefits!

I took a bunch of food in to work yesterday, and I'm taking more today, for people to sort through and take. We can't take it with us, unfortunately, because of the strict quarantine laws in Australia.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Adventures in Labo(u)r Laws

When I received the offer for my new job, I looked through the packet of information with great interest. I was especially intrigued by one of the papers -- an information sheet (link is to pdf) from "Fair Work Australia" about my rights as an employee. It was a recursive info sheet -- one of my rights was "the right to receive this information sheet about your rights."

But reading it, several major points stood out in my mind. The first was all the rights that Australian workers have, rights that Americans only see as luxuries. For example, everyone receives four (4) weeks paid vacation! The lowest minimum-wage worker in Australia is entitled to more vacation than I receive as a highly compensated professional in the United States. Note that they are entitled to it; I receive three weeks off as a gesture of goodwill from my employer. (There is no vacation requirement in the US.)

Furthermore, Australian workers are entitled to up to ten days of paid leave for illness or caregiving for a family member. Again, no paid leave is required in the United States, which means that the three days per year that my employer gives me is above and beyond the call of duty. But it is somewhat humiliating to realize that a minimum wage worker in Australia has more than 3 times the cushion that I do in the event of accident or illness.*

Another entitlement is to be able to work out a flexible schedule with your employer to accommodate for caring for your child under school age or disabled child. Imagine trying to do that in the United States! Even my employer, which prides itself on (its perceived) flexibility, would be hard-pressed to do that.

It's like employers are supposed to think of you as a full person, not just a "work factory!" I think I'm going to really like being respected as a worker.

* This is not intended as a swipe at minimum-wage workers. My point is that the lowliest workers in the Australian labor ecosystem are entitled to more benefits than the highest workers in the American labor ecosystem receive from top employers. American workers deserve more rights!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Open Letter to Fat-Haters

Dear Insecure Assholes,

Some fat people are fat because they eat too much. Others (usually the ones who are so fat that you make fun of them) have genetic make-ups that cause them to balloon in weight because of our modern, sedentary lifestyle.

What we call a genetic disorder was actually an advantage in the not-so-distant past. You see, if food was scarce, then being able to efficiently store as many calories as possible would be a huge bonus. And so would having a huge appetite, especially for sweet and fatty foods. But with today's plentiful food (including foods that are full of empty calories), this is no longer an advantage. So these people end up with more calories coming in than they are expending. Making fun of somebody who is genetically prone to obesity is like making fun of a woman who comes from a long line of ancestors with breast cancer.

Next let's talk about the people who are fat because they eat too much. People eat too much for a variety of reasons. Some people just don't make it a priority to watch their weight. There's nothing wrong with that choice, despite what our society preaches. Being moderately overweight has been shown to be beneficial in a lot of medical outcomes. Others have been sexually abused, and become obese so that they are "unattractive" in a dysfunctional attempt to ward off future abusers. And still others use food as a form of comfort to survive abuse or tough times. (This is what I did when I was going through a tough time.) In other words, at best you are making fun of people who have made a morally neutral choice, but more than likely you're piling further pain upon already-hurting people.

Next let's talk about your misconceptions about fat people. They are not inherently lazy. They do not all shovel doughnuts into their mouths by the dozen at all times. And, just because you see someone eating a Big Mac, for all you know that could be a special treat for the person and not a regular occurence! They often eat balanced diets. They often exercise. They are not dirty and gross. They are just normal people trying to make it through the journey of life.

If you are making fun of fat people, you must be feeling really hurt and insecure yourself. Well, just remember that we all have our ways of accommodating for our insecurities. Some people overeat, and others make fun of other people. Your behavior is no less dysfunctional than theirs.

Oh, and making fun of people because their body deviates from the ideal is so junior-high. Please grow the heck up already!

No love,

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Adventures in Australiana

Adding to the riskiness of taking this job, I have never actually been to Australia. The interview was over the internet. They sent me documents via email, and I returned scans of the signed documents. I've never seen my future boss in person (although I did meet a few of his colleagues when they visited my workplace to learn strategies from the top supercomputing centers as they were starting up their project). But I did not jump into this sight-unseen.

I did a lot of homework ahead of time. A colleague has a friend who lives in Perth and works in the same building I will work in -- an American woman, with whom I spoke extensively. And thanks to Google Maps street view, we've driven around Perth (admittedly very slowly and in a fishbowl!). I've been reading the local news as well, getting a feel for what's going on.

I also read all about Australia and Western Australia (WA) as a whole. I've learned about the way their government is set up, and the fact that they have a childless, unmarried, female, atheist prime minister (a combination that would be political suicide in this country!). I learned about their history and holidays (for one thing, Easter is a four-day weekend). I learned about their income tax system, their retirement system, and their public medical insurance scheme (alas, with a temporary work visa, we don't qualify and must pay for our own private insurance). I learned about how to get a driver's license in Western Australia. I read the Western Australian police department's website, the WA department of education's website, and examined some of the primary schools in the area that Vinny could potentially attend. I checked out the online shopping for two of the biggest grocery stores in the area, as well as the Australian Kmart and Target chains (they licensed the names and logos from the US, but that is the extent of the similarity). Yes, they do sell peanut butter.

A friend of mine let me borrow Bill Bryson's book In a Sunburned Country, a book that really did make me laugh out loud. (I only wish it would have had more about Perth.) We watched a number of documentaries on Australia as well.

I've also been in contact with some of my future colleagues, one in particular who has kids similar in age to Vinny. From that colleague, I've learned more about how the schools work and about Australian culture. I think it's all going to be just fine (although that is not to say that there will be no surprises!).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Adventures in Resignation

Eventually, I was going to have to tell the powers-that-be that I was leaving. Technically, I only had to give two weeks notice, but that would have been kind of rude. I might want to come back someday, and I don't want to burn any bridges. I asked my boss what to do, and he recommended that I tell them in May, to give them two months to adjust to the situation, and also, enough time to at least have a chance to counter offer.

But, when I talked to another person at work whose opinion I greatly respect, he told me I should tell the powers-that-be as soon as I was emotionally ready to do so. When I told this colleague, I ended up crying, because it is a very emotionally charged thing for me.* So I needed to practice, he told me, practice until I could say it without crying and in a way that would convey the excitement I was feeling -- to help them understand why I had made this decision.

In a way, this situation reminded me of when I was a postdoc and had to tell my boss that I was pregnant. I remember telling him that I had some "exciting" news -- not good news, not bad news. He received it very well. So I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of practice.

I decided that I needed to do it before a major conference that was approaching. I also thought it would be best to do it on a Friday afternoon. So almost two weeks ago, I told my boss' boss that I had decided to take the other job offer, because it was such an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

He was disappointed, but he took it well. I told him I would definitely like for our two centers to collaborate, and he readily agreed. I said I might want to come back someday, and he didn't disagree. The last thing I wanted to do was burn any bridges, and I don't believe I have.

* Also, I was really sick, and if I had a reasonable number of sick days per year, I would have been at home trying to recover from the flu instead of at work sharing it with my colleagues. So I wasn't really in the best state physically or emotionally that day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adventures in Difficult Decisions

I felt really guilty about it, but I wanted to take this other position, even though it meant leaving my family and friends, and my boss (who may as well be family) behind.  I felt that by staying, I could prolong my boss's life by keeping that pressure off of him.

At the same time, I was so angry at my current workplace that it was hard to retain my composure sometimes.  The fact that I had a good offer elsewhere helped to lower my inhibitions.  I became fearless -- asking nine questions of the head of my institution at a managerial meeting (more than twice as many questions as everyone else combined!), sending a letter of complaint to the head of HR about the HR person whose remarks had so angered me, and generally being more outspoken than usual, as I dared them all to fire me.

But still I felt so guilty and so ashamed to even think of leaving.  My in-laws would be devastated; my friends were begging me not to go; and I could not bear to think of abandoning my boss.

I had lunch with him, still away from work, and I sobbed nearly the whole time.  He reassured me that he would not think less of me for leaving, that he understood why I would want to pursue this opportunity.*  I saw a gleam in his eye when he talked about coming to our current workplace when it was a brand-new center.

I wanted that gleam in my eye, not the flash of fire that inevitably appears these days.  I wanted to love the way I earn a living.  So the solution seemed obvious.  But one stumbling block remained: relocation.  The offer did not include sufficient relocation funds to move our household without paying out of pocket, and I did not want to do that.  So I asked for what I wanted: full moving expenses and one month of short-term housing.**  And they agreed! (Maybe I should have asked for more!)

So I signed the papers, scanned them, and sent them over email, following up with the originals via priority mail.  Ten days later, I applied for the visa, and within six hours of turning in the final paperwork, the visa was approved.***

*See what I mean about how awesome he is?  Best. Boss. Ever!!!

** Template for others facing this situation:

Thank you very much for this exciting opportunity. I am very excited about the possibility and I would really like to accept your offer. There is one final concern that I have, but assuming that it can be resolved to our mutual satisfaction, I will sign the contract. 

 My concern has to do with relocation. I’ve been trying to find out how much it would cost to move our belongings from A to B, and from what I understand it may cost much more than $X. One quote I received was $Y, and based on Z’s experience (she forwarded me her moving info) this seems like a good approximation. Someone is coming to perform an in-home moving estimate on Monday, but unfortunately I won’t get a quote until after the deadline for accepting. 

What I would really like is for the cost of relocation and one month of short-term housing to be covered. It would ease my family’s anxiety about moving, and my anxiety about trying to find a place to live while trying to do well at my job and adjusting to a brand-new place. If we could agree to something like that, then I would definitely sign the contract.

*** I am really impressed with the efficiency of the Australian government (or at least their immigration department).  From my experience with hiring foreign nationals, this process would have dragged out another six months if I'd been dealing with the United States government.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Adventures in Job Satisfaction

From my perspective, my life at work had taken a turn for the worse in recent months.

My boss, who is truly made entirely of elemental awesome, has a serious chronic health condition, which took a turn for the worse at the end of last year.  Unfortunately, even Awesomonium can't protect you from your own body degenerating.  Over the past two years, I had taken on more of his load to help protect his fragile health, something that I willingly did, because I want to someday go into management and this was an opportunity to gain experience -- but most importantly, because I love that man!*  I've mentioned that I became the hiring manager for postdocs last summer -- that was one of his tasks.  I was able to hire the rest of the postdocs and write all the boring reports that went with this task.  I also served as his substitute when his health kept him from work, and as the main point of contact for a number of other tasks.  All this while still doing my own job.

When the higher-ups decided to open up a new task lead position (reporting to my boss), I jumped at the opportunity and applied for it.  My boss wanted me to have that position (since I was already doing the work), but the folks above him weren't so sure.  After several months had passed and I hadn't heard anything good about my chances of getting that job, I decided to be a little more proactive about my career.  I saw a position advertised at another supercomputing center, one for which the requirements and qualifications were basically "everything Rebecca has been doing over the years."  I applied almost 3 weeks after the application deadline, yet I still landed the interview, and within a half-hour I was asked when I could start.

It seemed like a cool opportunity, one that I would be willing to take, despite one major downside: it involved moving far away.  We've always lived within a one-state radius of Kentucky, and we are very close to our families, so this would be a big adjustment.  But I was nevertheless delighted when I learned that I would be getting an offer from this institution.

Adding to my interest in this other opportunity were some recent developments related to our benefits at my current workplace.  Our retirement matching was temporarily suspended, and our paid absences heavily restricted to a ridiculous level, all to deal with the consequences of the poor economy and government austerity.  More plans were being developed to cut costs on our pension plan and health insurance, as well.  My boss was now on medical leave, so I got the opportunity to attend meetings on these issues in his stead.

Attending these meetings opened my eyes to just how out of touch with regular people the leadership at my institution really is.  Nobody thought to consult with groups representing the types of people who would be most adversely impacted by the new restrictions on paid time away (e.g., women, single parents, and people with chronic illnesses) when these policies were being developed, for example.  And one representative of human resources actually conflated the case of an irresponsible person using up all their paid time off on a wild drunken vacation and the case of someone like my boss using up all his paid time off to cover the days he was too sick to work!**  It took all the strength I had not to leap across the table.  Instead my inner mom took over, and I scolded this insensitive HR person into silence.

I also did not feel particularly certain about my future in a leadership role at my current workplace.  While my boss seems to understand my accomplishments and abilities, his boss was unaware and fairly indifferent.  When told that I was considering this other option, he was not particularly motivated to try and keep me.  I spoke with him about it, and he did not see the same future for me here that I wanted.  It was nothing personal -- just a matter of opinion about the direction the center should go for the task lead position.  So it seemed the writing was on the wall.

The offer came in from the other institution.  It was a little low -- a 20% pay cut.  I emailed back and politely asked for more, based on what I currently make.***  They met me in the middle, which was about what I had expected.  Despite the 10% pay cut, the higher cost of living, and the necessity of saving additional money to pay for annual trips home to Kentucky, it was looking better and better.

The guy who manages the day-to-day operations of our center -- a guy who works for my boss's boss, and wields some power -- caught wind of my other offer.  In a panic, he called me in for a meeting, and asked what he could do to keep me from leaving.  All I ever wanted, I told him, was to be task lead.  I'm already doing the work and I'm doing a good job.  (He agreed.)  But, the bigger boss is apparently looking for someone with different qualifications than mine.  I understand, and I'm disappointed, but I'm not taking it personally.  If he could persuade the bigger boss to give me the title, however, I would probably stay.  He said he'd work on it.  I thanked him, and told him my deadline was mid-January.

I continued to negotiate with the other center.  There were a lot of really good things about this opportunity.  It's a brand-new supercomputing center.  The science problems they are solving overlap somewhat with what I currently work on, but there is also room for growth by working on another of their major focuses.  The new (to me) problems boil down to inverse and ill-posed problems, which is what I cut my teeth on (or, got my Ph.D. working on!) but have never solved at such a large scale.  Since it's a new center and I would be one of the first staff members, there would be lots of opportunities to apply my experience and step into new roles.

My updated offer arrived, and I informed the powers that be of my deadline.  The operations guy came through, and I learned that I would be getting the position I wanted.

But I wasn't as happy about it as I had hoped.  I was glad to finally get the recognition I deserved, but at the same time I felt under-appreciated and resentful of the great lengths I had to go to in order to get it.  The director of my potential new workplace, however, was making me feel a lot more wanted -- all my emails with complex questions were quickly answered, and he even offered to chat via the internet, something I did take him up on.

In our chat, he told me of all the exciting new opportunities I would have there -- the opportunity to mentor and supervise students, the opportunity to develop as a leader, and the opportunity to really shape how the center would operate.  We talked about the location, the nice weather, the real possibility of me being able to walk to work every day...

But... did I mention that it is in Australia?  Perth, Western Australia -- almost antipodal -- or certainly as far away as you can get from Kentucky without landing in the ocean.

* He is the best boss I will probably ever have.  He's a person who engenders strong emotions in everyone -- I don't think I've ever met anyone who is neutral about him.  But here are a few ways that he is the best boss ever: 1, He trusts us to do our work and get the job done however we decide to do it.  2, He thinks of us as human beings, not "work-production machines," and strives to have a positive personal relationship with each person in our group.  3, He is extremely family-friendly, and understands that family obligations are actually more important than work.  4, He never does anything to remind me that I'm different than the majority of the group, e.g., he curses just as much in front of me as he does everyone else, and he never makes sexist jokes.  5, The way people treat my child and the way my child reacts to them is a reasonably accurate first-order approximation of their character -- and he loves my son, and my son adores him too.  

**  Obviously this HR person is a Tea Party member, because their point was "personal responsibility!!!!" Yeah, my boss should have totally picked a better body for his soul to enter into (if you believe in that kind of thing), or at a minimum directed the development of his body more carefully in utero.  How irresponsible of him to have a genetic predisposition for his chronic illness!  He should have picked different parents.

** A template for anyone facing this situation:
"Right now, looking at the offer, I have a few concerns with the salary rate.  Currently, I make $X annually, and I live in one of the least expensive parts of the United States.  I am the sole breadwinner in my family (my husband stays home and cares for our young son), but we live very comfortably.  I recognized, when applying, that even the highest end of the salary range quoted would be a pay cut, and I was prepared for a moderate amount of belt tightening to accommodate for that, combined with moving to a more expensive part of the world and the necessity of spending $Y/year on plane tickets to visit family who are currently only a short drive away.  I was prepared to do that because [insert reasons this is a cool opportunity here], but this is a little more belt-tightening than I feel comfortable doing.  Is there any way that the salary could come any closer to what I make now?"

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Adventures in Eye Trouble

On Thursday, I could see the red spreading through the white of my left eye. I could see where this was going -- pinkeye -- so when I got home, I got out the eyedrops from the bout last year, and began medicating myself before things got any worse.

That evening, I watched some TV, and I noticed how incredibly bright the thing was. As the evening wore on, my eye became more and more photosensitive. I woke up in the middle of the night with excrutiating pain in my eye, from the ambient light of my neighborhood coming in through the window and filtering through my eyelid! I may as well have been staring straight into the sun, for all the pain it was causing me.

Jeff got me a towel and I was able to wrap my head in it and the pain was not as bad, but there was still a stabbing pain every few minutes. But I managed to get a little sleep.

In the morning I still could not open my eyes or unwrap my head hardly at all. I took a shower with my eyes closed. Jeff took me to the doctor, blindfolded. He also went into the appointment with me, in case someone needed to hold me down while the doctor pried my eyelid open. The doctor was suspicious about the photosensitivity, which made him think it wasn't pinkeye, so he referred me to a specialist. By that point, things were starting to get a little better, and I could open my eyes in a dark room with minimal discomfort. The opthamologist numbed my eye and shone various colored lights into it. After a detailed examination, he determined that I had suffered an episode of iritis, a non-contagious, spontaneous inflammation of the eye. He prescribed some eyedrops for me and off we went.

Today, my eye is a bit sore and red, but much better. Vinny has been administering my eyedrops, which has been great! I am so lucky to have such a sweet and thoughtful son who takes good care of me!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Red Leaf Conversations

Today, after I turned left at a stoplight, I saw another red Nissan Leaf, stopped behind me at the light. I slowed down a little bit, hoping that the other red Leaf would catch up to me.

Sure enough, the driver stopped beside me at the next traffic light. I rolled down my window, and he rolled down his. We conversed about our cars. We both love them, and think they are the best car ever.

Then that light turned green, but we got caught by the next one. In our next conversation, I told him that I'd had mine since July, and he said he got his in September. Then there were no more stoplights, and we eventually went our separate ways.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Sibelius Symphony No. 4

Jean Sibelius is another of my favorite composers. His work is a departure from Beethoven's -- less formal, more organic. In his symphonies, the music just evolves from the beginning to the end, unlike the more formal structure of Beethoven's symphonies.

My favorite symphonies are the second, third, and fourth. The second and third are fairly popular, but the fourth is under-appreciated, in my opinion.

Perhaps this is because it is so dark and stark. I readily concede that it is. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is certainly mine. This symphony has been played orders of magnitude more than everything else on my iPod. It is perfect for writing papers -- it keeps my emotions occupied while my brain works on the papers.

One commenter on the YouTube video that I link to for this said:
If there ever was a man foolish enough to say that despair cannot be sublime, by the time this symphony hits 1 minute and 10 seconds he has been proven wrong.
Take out the male-exclusive pronouns, and I could not agree more. It is a piece of beauty drawn from despair.

The symphony begins with a slow movement (unusual for a symphony). It starts with a cello/bass/bassoon dirge, and eventually a solo cello rises above. This movement sets the mood for the entire symphony: slow, stark, and dark. More of the orchestra joins in: first the violas, then the second violins, and finally the firsts -- and the volume rises as more instruments join. At the 2:15 mark, when the strings cannot get any louder, the horns and then the trumpets join in. This characterizes the entire movement -- a series of swells of sound, very beautiful, but slow, stark and dark.

Even the second movement, which is in a fast tempo, leads right back into slow, stark, and dark for the third movement (my favorite movement, and the focus of this post). The third movement parallels the beginning of the piece, with sustained cello/bass, but a flute solo to start. The flute passes the melody off to the clarinet, then it goes back to the flute, and the cellos and basses begin to imitate the lines of the flute.

We get a small taste of the melody that will be the climax of the piece when the horns enter at the 1:16 mark, but the first substantial preview is initiated by the violas beginning at about the 2:43 mark. At 4:30 it appears again in a slightly more developed form played by cellos under string tremolo. But it gets interrupted by a reprise of earlier themes. The cellos and basses bring it up again at about 5:32, with a poignant cello solo, and we again get thrown off by reprise of earlier themes. The next time it appears is at the 6:45 mark, and it is a much bigger exposition. At this point we can hear it in depth. It begins at the lowest range of the cellos and rises 6 octaves while swelling to fortissimo, before diving back down to the depths and pianissimo, and returning to the original opening theme.

At the 8:30 mark, we have a major theme under which the climax melody, played by the cellos, serves as accompaniment. Finally, at the ten-minute mark, it is the beginning of the big climax. Violins, viola, and cello play it in unison. The melody rises almost 3 octaves and the volume rises to fortissimo until the highest point is reached, and a swift decrescendo down to almost nothing.

For the remainder of the movement we have a sustained focus on the pitch C-sharp. There is a lot of dissonance and resolution and dissonance again, passing from flute to clarinet to first violin to second violin to cello to pizzicato bass, until everyone ends up on the C sharp and just fades away.

The fourth movement starts at C sharp. It is a necessary semi-resolution of the despair of the third movement, and has some beautiful moments in it, my favorite being the theme that begins at about the 2:48 mark and returns at about the 4:25 mark. In this particular recording, the coda (last part) is interpreted a lot differently than I had ever heard -- extremely slow, but perhaps more like it's intended, as if to say that there's no escape from the stark and dark. Although, if it were all up to me, I wouldn't even be trying to escape.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Beethoven's 9th Symphony

In this series of posts, I've already discussed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony is equally famous. Everybody's heard the "Ode to Joy" -- and you may have even sung it a few times in church (it is a hymn in the Methodist hymnal at least). The final movement with the chorus is superb, to be sure, but I'd like to focus on the first two movements.

The first movement begins with an interval of a fourth (A and E). This is the (inverted) scaffolding of a chord -- the top and the bottom, but not the crucial middle note that tells you whether this is a major or a minor chord. He hangs onto this fourth, accentuating the two notes with violins ascending and descending the scale on those two pitches only, for half a minute. I love the tension this creates -- what is going on? Is this going to ever resolve?

Yes! It does resolve at that point, into D minor, which is fascinating because it is not entirely expected -- those starting notes suggested A minor or A major (although, A minor is a secondary chord in the key of D minor, so it's related). There's a little exposition of a melody, for another half minute, until we get back to another series of fifths, this time D and A. And this time, it resolves into B-flat major, but soon modulates across keys and into a fairly lengthy melodic section mostly in a major key, a break in the storm.

But at the 4:45 mark, we return to the fourths, this time resolving into a series of chords crescendoing into the exposition of a melody derived from the fourths. I really like the part beginning at about 6:23, where the violins alternate between G's -- one the lowest note they can play, and the other two octaves above, and this is then echoed by the woodwinds and brass when the violins take over the melody. Beginning at about the 7-minute mark, a sense of urgency is created in the texture of the piece by strings playing triplets (in the background), which creates an asymmetry in the music. The motion continues, culminating in a series of fortissimo D-major chords beginning at the 8:57 mark, changing to D minor at about 8:45, and recapitulating the melodies we heard throughout the movement. It ends in a typical Beethoven fashion, with a recapitulation of the first melody and a whole lot of D-minor chords.

My favorite movement in the entire symphony is the second movement, the scherzo. Apparently Beethoven was widely criticized for not following the standard form for symphonies, so he wrote this movement as a response to that criticism. The scherzo takes an A-B-A form: scherzo-trio-scherzo. It is in three (as scherzos should be), but with the fast tempo (prestissimo!) and syncopation, it sounds as if it's in quadruple time at times. Take that, critics!

It begins with the same melody* as the first movement, punctuated by a timpani. Then it goes into a fugue, started by the violins, joined by the horns and the rest of the string section and eventually the whole orchestra. We first hear the syncopation at about the 16:45 mark of the recording I've linked to, and in fact the harmony sounds backward in a way when we get to 16:52.

I love the way the timpani is used just like another instrument, in the 17:45 range -- it is identical to the contributions of all the rest of the instruments. And the music rises to a fortissimo statement of the melody beginning at about 18:15.

The trio section is introduced by the woodwinds at about 19:37. It is a swift departure from the original melody -- in major, and seemingly in quadruple time. It is a pleasant and peaceful break from the relentless minor melody. Until, of course, it returns at 22:10. The trio tries to reassert itself at about 25:38, but soon gets squashed by the melody from the first movement to round off the movement.

* If you can call it that! But Beethoven is the master of creating compelling music out of poor melodies.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Jobs: To Accept or Not to Accept?

Science Professor posted an article discussing whether it is best to take a job in hand or to take a risk on the possibility of another job offer coming through.*  The answer, of course, is that it depends.

Personally, I am probably more conservative and honor-bound than most.  So I would look at the job offer and try to figure out if it is good enough, and if so, accept the job and don't look back.  Reneging is sometimes necessary (e.g., family emergency, something big that changes the game), but it is really rude to the people who are trying to hire for a position.

I once had a postdoc candidate who turned down my job offer so that they could interview at Dream Place.  This person hadn't even gotten an interview there yet.  I was surprised that this is what they chose to do, but it worked out well for them in the end -- they now work at Dream Place.  And it worked out well for me as well, because I was able to hire the second-choice candidate who is now doing a wonderful job.

But we had another candidate who reneged, and not for good reasons, which made my boss extremely angry.  It is really hard on the hiring manager when this sort of thing happens -- we have to reopen the job search if we've already closed it, and there may have been a perfectly capable second-choice candidate who we've already rejected and has probably gotten a job elsewhere.  If it's for a good reason, we don't get resentful, but when it's because you've accepted a "better" job, that's different!  That person will never get a job with anyone my boss knows.

* In the context of professional job fields in which jobs are relatively plentiful -- making the best choice amongst many good choices.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Inquiring Minds Need to Know: Thomas the Tank Engine Edition

Some things that are particularly disturbing about the world of Thomas the Tank Engine:

  • Am I the only person who noticed the fact that "Sodor" and "Mordor" sound very similar?
  • And that Sir Topham Hatt always has his eye on the trains?
  • The virtue on Sodor is "being useful," while the biggest vice is "causing confusion and delay."  Apparently, verbally abusing trains is A-OK.  
  • Am I the only person who thinks that sometimes, the trains should just tell Sir Topham Hatt to shove it?
  • With all the accidents that happen in just about every episode, how has Sir Topham Hatt's license to operate the railroads not yet been revoked?
  • What exactly is the role of the train driver?  The trains seem to make all the big decisions.  Why do the drivers not put their foot down when the trains are being reckless?
  • Am I the only person who abhors the classism inherent in Sodor society?  The trains aspire to be "really useful" and bicker amongst each other to get the "most important" of the menial tasks Sir Topham Hatt throws at them.  Mr. Perkins, the engine driver who is featured between stories, has a working-class British accent and is sickeningly deferential when Sir Topham Hatt calls on the phone.  (And don't even get me started on the exotic "oriental" train, Hiro!)  Everyone has their place in society and there is no mobility.
  • Speaking of accents, why does the obviously American narrator of the story pronounce "Thomas" in the British way?  And I also find it hilarious when he says these typically British phrases (e.g. "Sir Topham Hatt was very cross!") with an American accent.
  • Sir Topham Hatt's brother Sir Lowham Hatt was in one episode, and caused the dreaded "confusion and delay."  This helped me hate Sir Topham Hatt a little less, and understand why he turned out the way he did, given a childhood spent with this ne'er-do-well.  Still, it does not excuse the way he behaves towards the trains.  But more importantly, how did some useless nobody like Sir Lowham Hatt become a "Sir"?  Clearly he inherited the title, which furthers the case against royalism.
  • When will my child finally outgrow this horrible show?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Important Milestone

Today, Vinny lost a tooth for the first time!  The permanent tooth had pushed it forward in his mouth until it was very precariously perched in his mouth.  He wiggled and wiggled the tooth until finally it came out.

The neighboring tooth is starting to be pushed out in the same way by its corresponding permanent tooth. Coincidentally, he has a dentist appointment tomorrow.  It will be interesting to hear what the dentist has to say!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to my vast readership!

My work situation is not yet resolved, but that doesn't mean I can't write about other things!

We had a great holiday.  We got a chance to see the whole family on both sides.  First we visited my dad and stepmom, and saw my sisters and their families and my bonus siblings and their families as well.  Then we went to visit Jeff's parents, and got a chance to see his siblings and their families, and spend some extra time with his nephews.

Vinny got a lot of great presents.  The highlight to him was a portable washing machine that Santa brought for him.  It is a small, hand-cranked washing machine that is basically a giant salad spinner.  The moment he saw it, he lost all interest in opening his stocking or playing with anything else.  He pretended to wash a lot of things, but it wasn't until yesterday that he and I actually used it to wash a few of his clothes.  It worked amazingly well!

In other news, I had long been annoyed by the hideously ugly wallpaper in the master bathroom at our house, especially because it was halfway peeling off the walls.  So I decided to solve that problem by removing the wallpaper.  Once I began peeling the wallpaper off, it was really hard to stop.  I was late to work on Friday because I couldn't stop peeling the wallpaper.  The wallpaper is mostly gone, but even halfway done it is an improvement.  The problem is that the bathtub and tile in the bathroom is a hideous dusty rose color from the 60's.  It's on the orange side of pink -- kind of like this.  It is the equivalent of that 70's avocado color, only pink.  My plan is to paint the walls a neutral color that will not clash with the dusty rose.  After this project is finished, I'm going to replace the hideous peeling vinyl floor in there.