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|Monday, February 19th, 2018|
After travelling somewhere almost every weekend throughout December and January, things have largely settled down again to a broadly uneventful February - with no major trips planned until the end of the month and no major deadlines (or much in the way of other notable events generally) to report.
I'm not teaching this term, so this has provided an opportunity to return in a more genuine way to a routine of self-driven and largely distraction-free research. The conference last month was a good kick-in-the-pants to get some progress going on my signature research project and make some genuine plans for my next few publications, after the whole notion of doing research kind of fell apart back in September as teaching ramped up. So that's been nice, and it's been good to feel research moving forward again.
This isn't quite to say that the spark of motivation has fully returned, though - I've been churning out a decent set of progress on my usual sort of 10-to-7 workday, but even though I've generally been one to pride myself on also managing to "get ahead" on evenings and weekends, the spark to do that hasn't quite been there, yet. Part of this is the fact that the traffic noise outside my apartment has proven to be a big distraction, and part of it is just continuing confusion of what I'm doing or where I'm really going in the next few years - I'm not entirely sure what I'm building up to anymore, whether I've made the right decisions, and the like.
In any case, although returning to a 'balanced' schedule of this type is nice in theory, I've been taking advantage of it poorly, with most evenings and weekends spent alone by myself, watching videos on the internet or whatever. I'm still rather lacking in a proper hobby around here, especially in winter-time when it is too wet to do much outdoors (and there is no green space in the city in easily-accessible distance even for a simple walk). It would be nice to go skiing again some weekend (Chamonix was amazing last year, despite the rain), but that can be pretty dimly asocial to do solo and isn't cheap - and I'm starting to become conscious of the fact that my conference out-of-pocket subsidies and frequent social trips and family visits are pushing my annual budget into the net negative, and retirement isn't quite the impossibly far-off thing it used to be.
Well, anyway. Not all is grim. First, I got my official teaching evaluations back from my fall statistics class, and they were pretty great: perfect scores in most categories (highest-possible rating from every student) and an overall average that was the best in my department and a whole point (out of five) above the university average. Second, I have the opportunity to apply for promotion in March, which would somewhat alleviate my grumpiness about the much lower salary for this job compared to US positions (or even my old postdoc). Third, there is a furcon coming up in a couple weeks - and in any case I'll figure out something entertaining to do with myself to do during March's weekends. And fourth, as you've surely already noticed - I have an incredibly cute new icon! :)
|Friday, February 2nd, 2018|
|Living the high life in Sexten
My return to Liverpool was short because I had one more conference to attend: a small workshop in the small village of Sexten, located in the Dolomites of northern Italy along the border with Austria. (I was here once before
, in summer.) The conference topic was "Chemical evolution with GRBs", a very specific subject area that is very close to what I work on. Between that and the awesome location in the snowy mountains, in some sense it was a no-brainer to attend.
Nevertheless I put off deciding for a long time, even until after Christmas. The problem was that, unfortunately, after years of being supported by a generous travel stipend I'm now without any of my own money to spend, such that any conference has to be approved and paid for by both the department chair and the Dean. And after having just had a fairly pricey stay at the AAS meeting, I was concerned that if I asked for a week-long stay in the mountains for some tiny conference I might be turned down. I was also a little concerned that hardly anyone would be here (since the field is in a phase of significant contraction at the moment), nor did I have anything particularly new to present (given how teaching destroyed my research time over the past six months).
Of course, I decided to go anyway, and to avoid the risk of being turned down by just offering to pay everything out of my own pocket except the registration fee (which would at least spare me the vacation days and a little bit of the cost.) The conference was happening in a ski village and I was going to take at least one ski vacation in the Alps at some point this year anyway, so I may as well align it with something that would be productive with a work standpoint.
Despite the very substantial cost (which could easily have paid for a trip back to the US), there's been little doubt that it was worth it. It is indeed a tiny conference (and the talks - mostly by Italians, since this conference didn't have much draw beyond the local area - haven't been particularly beneficial. Still, it has been useful to get a snapshot of what some of my competitors have been up to. It's been very motivating: in the sense that although I haven't been able to attending a meeting on this topic in years, it is a subject that I more-or-less own based on my publication record, and after attending a quite different mix of meetings over the past year and a half (and having been pulled in a bunch of different directions scientifically) it's good both to be reminded of that and to be able to let others know what I have been up to. This should (ideally) provide a useful shot in the arm to finish up some important papers in this area in the coming months.
Of course, the main thing that's been worth it about this trip has been all the other aspects outside the talks. For one thing, the conference venus is situated right at the bottom of a ski lift, and things have been operating on a "ski conference" schedule---meaning morning and evening talks and a four-hour afternoon break. So of course I've been taking the opportunity to go out onto the slopes every day, with the exception of Thursday when I had to remain huddled in my room to work on an observing proposal due that evening. Conditions have been pretty good: there's plenty of snow, and the first three days were sunny and warm before a storm came through Thursday and dropped quite a bit of snow for today's skiing.
The evenings have been almost as good. The food is magnificent: the hotel has an expansive dinner buffet, followed by a four course meal, followed by a dessert buffet (all included in the price). And despite my initial worries that few people I knew would be here, there are just enough of my European science pals here to make up a social clique of six or so at dinner to hang out and chat about GRB science or whatever else---followed by a continuation of this at the bar over grappa.
It's a life I could definitely get used to. Alas, this trip is almost over, and tomorrow morning I'll be heading back to my much duller regular life. Still, after a week of this I feel a lot better than I have in months, and maybe with some luck some of that will persist through the rest of the winter season.
|Sunday, January 28th, 2018|
|A week back in Liverpool
Well, back to normal life. I arrived back in Liverpool late on Wednesday evening of last week after a very long day of travel and of course passed out immediately. The next day it was back to the office.
I can't actually call the first day back a normal day - there was an all-day meeting between the Liverpool Telescope group and a bunch of Chinese and Thai scientists who are considering buying into the next phase of the project (a new robotic telescope on the summit of the same mountain). I was scheduled to give a talk about GRB science, which I set a new record in terms of last-minute preparation by writing it the same day: fortunately it went swimmingly and in any case it was a somewhat low pressure presentation from my perspective.
After that, though, things have finally returned to the sort of "normalcy" that has defined most of my recent academic career: teaching is all over and done with, and so it's back to research, setting my own schedule, and all the other perks of academic life with a low teaching load (a phrase which sounded utterly comical during the fall semester).
Of course, this also serves to illustrate just how far behind I've been put, as I reach back to tasks that ideally would have been done months ago and sift through my e-mails to send apologetic notes about things people had contacted me about that date back almost that far. But, at least there is some headway being made.
Things are different, though, compared to my last pre-teaching, pre-travel period (which was, incredulously, mid-July), since my attitude is still in a weird place. I ended up not applying for or even inquiring about the Colorado job in the end, which of course I'm kicking myself about now that the shortlist is public and it's unambiguously too late, a fact that is adding to my list of frustrations.
At least, though, it's possible to obtain a little bit of balance and to reclaim my evenings (and to some extent weekends) to pursue activities that help my own personal sanity. And, anyway, there are things to look forward to, starting with a trip beginning tomorrow to a "ski meeting" in the Dolomites.
|Wednesday, January 17th, 2018|
|Further Confusion 2018
The final stop of my winter travels, and the third convention in my back-to-back convention spree, was Further Confusion: my "original" furcon
and the 14th consecutive FC that I've attended! This con has been such a fixture of my life, it's hard to even comprehend getting through January without it.
I was late in arriving this year, though, because of the overlap with the AAS meeting in Washington. AAS and FC are often happen during the same week, but typically just miss each other on the actual days: AAS usually ends Thursday afternoon, and FC only really gets going Friday morning. But, this year AAS lated through the end of Friday (and was on the opposite side of the country), providing an irresolvable conflict for Friday. In the end I decided to stay at AAS through all of Thursday evening but then skip out on the last day to catch a (painfully) early flight out of Washington. This got me to San Francisco by noon and (after a few extra hours navigating the South Bay's public transit) at the con by mid-afternoon.
As always, it was a good con, with lots of fursuit fun and good times with friends. It did feel a little subdued compared to the last few FCs - possibly because some regulars I know weren't there, or possibly just because my internal reference point had become the jam-packed MFF (which is now more than twice the size of FC). Recent career/life events may also have been weighing on me subtly even after the long break period. Still, it was a great time and I'm sad it's over.
I arranged to spend one extra day in the Bay Area after FC before returning the UK Tuesday afternoon. Originally (when booking the flights) I'd figured this would give me time to go see my friends in Berkeley as well: normally I'd see them before the con, but the AAS-FC timing of course didn't permit that this year, so if I was to see them it would have to be after the con ended. This didn't happen in the end, but I was able to spend some more time with some furry friends in the South Bay instead including a few who couldn't make it to FC, so that was still nice.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon it was time to make the long trek back "home" to Liverpool. Another decision I made back when I booked my tickets was to splurge and go for the business class ticket (I had booked this trip on frequent flyer miles anyway - and I have a huge number of those saved up, so I figured why not.) This turned out to be a smart move - not really because I was particularly enamoured with the experience, but it provided something to look forward to on Monday/Tuesday as PCD was moving in, and being comfortable with "free" internet helped avoid the awful brooding I ended up stuck with on my cramped flight home from MFF.
I then had a long layover in Copenhagen, and (after another flight and a train ride) finally returned to Liverpool after four weeks' absence. Back to the office tomorrow.
|Friday, January 12th, 2018|
The official reason I was in DC was for work (to present at the annual AAS meeting), and as Magfest wound down gradually the hotel environs converted from fan convention to the big research meeting I had come to expect. I had been hoping to get in some fursuiting during the transition period but never really had a proper chance: essentially everyone at the con had gone home by Sunday night, leaving only a handful of dedicated individuals and some staff. I wound up at a staff party for a couple hours that night, but the hotel atrium was mostly empty.
A better chance would have come on Monday morning when any remaining gamers were checking out of the hotel and waiting around in the atrium, but I had already made plans with my parents to head to the National Mall and visit a few museums during the day. After that everything was fully converted to a research convention atmosphere. Probably I could have done it anyway in the evenings but I was mostly waylaid by catching up with colleagues anyway. And the "official" party Thursday night was too far away to scope out and determine whether it would be safe. Well, maybe next year :P
As for the meeting itself, there's not too much to add - I've been to many AAS meetings before and this was similar in character, with a mixture of short and long talks of varying (but sometimes high) quality. There were four entire sessions and numerous talks on the gravitational wave electromagnetic transient (which brought back some of my fall frustrations - but at least gave me the sense of being present and able to comment/query speakers). My talk on Thursday morning was short but went well enough.
Of course, the main reason to go was to meet up with old friends in the "business", which was of course nice to do. I had figured I'd be doing a lot of career "venting" but had mostly got that out of my system before (or at least, chilled a bit over Christmas / MAGFest) so I was mostly under control :P And there were some positive developments; one of the theorists that became relatively "famous" as a result of the gravitational wave event credited me in part for getting him interested in the subject, so I felt pretty good about that at least.
The meeting is still going on, but I had to head out a bit early - this year the AAS meeting truly overlaps with Further Confusion, and I can't miss more than a day of that! So today I'll be jetting back to the west cost for my third consecutive convention before I finally return "home".
|Monday, January 8th, 2018|
|Procyon goes to MAGFest
Since the end of 2017 was kind of a downer and thinking back on the year was getting me into quite poor spirits, I decided to start off 2018 on the right foot(paw): in fursuit, at a furry New Year's Eve party in Albuquerque (for once not hosted by Sabot).
The end of my (longer-than-usual) New Mexico visit wrapped up shortly thereafter. I had a brewery night with a furry friend on Wednesday, then went hiking in the alarmingly snow-free Sandia Mountains on Thursday - then flew out Friday morning to Washington, DC, where I would be attending the annual American Astronomical Society meeting.
Or, well, I would be eventually. But the meeting doesn't actually start until Tuesday: and yet I was here on Friday! What gives?
As it turns out, the AAS meeting is not the only
thing going on here this week: immediately beforehand, the same hotel hosted a very different sort of convention - MAGFest, the "Music and Gaming Festival", one of the biggest video game conventions in the world. Four years ago - the last time the AAS was held in the DC area - it also immediately followed MAGFest, and I was astounded when I walked in (late on Sunday evening) to encounter cosplayers and even the occasional fursuiter or two at the very tail end of that event. I noted - right here in writing!
- that had I only known about the con I would have come early and attended that too.
Well, this year was my chance! Although I had some second thoughts about it over the year (I am very far removed from video games these days and for a while unsure if it would really be worth the time and effort) I finally got around to scheduling my tickets and hotel by mid-December. I found a random furry roommate over Twitter and landed in the DC area on Friday night and headed to the hotel, not sure what to expect.
And it was awesome!
The convention is, of course, very gaming-focused, and while that's great I didn't have much expectation that I would have more than a detached involvement with that aspect of things. That remained true: while the convention sported a massive arcade section, nearly every major console game from the past 30 years (and even some from before that), and a giant section filled of board games, I only dabbled in that briefly (for a few rounds of Super Smash Brothers: Melee for Gamecube, nearly all of which I won - yeah, still got it 8) ). I also knew basically nobody and was more or less on my own the whole time, aside from my roommate (who mostly did his own thing).
But what I did have was a fursuit, and oh I did I make use of that! I'd been a little concerned going in: I'd paid little attention to nerd culture outside furry since about 2005 or so, but back then furries were still considered a kind of freakshow and not seen as particularly welcome at other events, especially gaming. But there were plenty of fursuiters roaming the halls unharassed when I was walking around Friday night, so with no reservations I suited up in Cami a few hours later and started scampering around.
And, the reception was super positive! OK, about 75% of the attendees didn't really care one way or another, but many many others thought it was great, with high-fives and hugs and demands for pictures and all the rest, plus shouts about Cami being cute/adorable/etc, and even the occasional "I love furries!", plus a "hug the dog" chant in the middle of the concert/dance during a break between acts. Yeah, I didn't need to worry :) I also met with plenty of other fursuiters in and out of suit and while I didn't exactly make any new best friends I at least have a handful more contacts and maybe gave a positive impression of the fandom to a small number (oh, about 20000) non-furry attendees.
My other concern going in had been that there'd be no headless lounge or other furry support. I needn't worry about that either, thanks to some support from mother nature - the whole weekend the East Coast was assaulted by extreme cold, with temperatures reaching nearly zero F accompanied by strong winds. Five minutes outside in that and I was completely chilled down and good to run around inside for another half hour at least. Hard to beat that.
And even as things were winding down today, I had some good fun - a furry friend came to visit from an hour away to get lunch, and at the last minute another friend secured me a last-minute invite to a staff party to get my con-party game going a little bit before finally returning to my room for tonight.
In addition, over the course of today astronomers have been filtering in in advance of the AAS meeting, which begins next week - my parents arrived tonight and I've seen a few colleagues in the halls tonight as well in between all of the events above. It's all very surreal - all of my life's passions and social circles seem to have converged in one place on one time and suddenly it feels as if the external reality has bent itself to match my own personal reality in a way. Wacky.
That won't last long, of course; from tomorrow afternoon on everything will convert to a regular astronomy meeting again.
Or will it? I do, after all, still have Cami here with me...
|Sunday, December 31st, 2017|
Well, this was another landmark year in my life, with more than its share of personal growth and accomplishments, as well as of frustrations and disappointments.
For me, the year really started in the last week of January: the weeks before that were in all respects basically a continuation of the pattern of 2016 (constant travel, no formal residence, political misery surrounding the inauguration). But then I moved to Liverpool to start the long-awaited faculty job there, and since then life has been quite different.
Actually, it's really been different twice - different before summer, and different yet again after the summer. The first half of the year was really a transition period of adjusting to my new surroundings and new role as a "permanent" researcher, but carried with it relatively few formal responsibilities: I had time off in the evenings and was able to do plenty of short trips of various lengths. All in all things were alright (new location, new adventures), although it was clear it wouldn't last.
Then came my long summer trip, and that's roughly when things suddenly became far more and complicated (and, unfortunately, difficult). I went to see the great American solar eclipse - which was amazing, but also frustrating: the astronomical event of the century occurred just as I left, and my travel plans ensured there was little I could do about it. Once I got back to England, my life was essentially devoured by teaching duties as I struggled to get a new class and new program developed and delivered. Thankfully the class was a success, and with it now done, I'll not have a similarly difficult semester again (for several years and perhaps ever.)
Still, even before the year-end led me to take a look back at things, I've been feeling discontent in various ways. Although my career is going well "enough" - I have landed a permanent position, after all, with a relatively light teaching load in the long term - the rather dismal nature of my personal life and few prospects to improve it has repeatedly led me to question whether the tradeoffs of the past few years have been "worth" the effort. Even before the latest move, I've had to sacrifice my social life several times by moving and each time the result has really been worse than what came before, which kind of puts a very unhappy spin on the idea of career progression.
Anyway, what's done is done, and things could still improve, especially after I'm able to get back to research in a genuine way and have time to travel and see friends and the like over the spring. Still, it does seem that 2018 is likely to be a year of reckoning in a way; I have a lot of questions to answer and choices to make and while I don't plan on making any rash decisions, I might end next year with an outlook that has changed as much compared to now, as my outlook now has changed from a year or two ago. I guess we'll see.
|Tuesday, December 26th, 2017|
The holidays are here at last, and after a few days trying (with limited success) to play catchup in my research before the end of the year, I packed up my things and flew back to the US early Thursday morning. Despite finding a fairly efficient flight path with no long layovers and no flight delays, the trip was still gruelingly long and by the time I arrived in Albuquerque at around 8 PM I was quite ready to collapse and fall asleep.
I stayed the night in Albuquerque and then spent Friday doing a panicked last-minute round of Christmas shopping (my busy semester had left no time to even think about it beforehand) before coming down to Socorro that evening. The next day was Christmas Eve, so of course there were luminaria preparations to take care of, and then finally Christmas Day itself yesterday.
Given the rather dull climate in England I had been hoping for a little excitement from the weather - if not necessarily something up to the spectacular Christmas blizzards of 2015 or 2011, at least something to support my "but actually" claims anytime somebody overseas remarks about how I must be looking forward to the warm weather at home. But no such weather materialized, and indeed the climate has been what most would consider idyllic: the Christmas high temperature reached 67 F, probably an all-time record and more characteristic of some place like LA or Phoenix. It probably won't change either, with warm and sunny weather forecast through the end of my stay in the state (which will be unusually long this year).
I guess there's not a ton to report other than that. I remain a bit down emotionally, confused about the future and distressed about some things in the recent past. But at least I have a lot to look forward to in the next few weeks.
|Friday, December 15th, 2017|
|Events of the past week
Well, it's been a pretty eventful week in a lot of different ways that are frankly difficult to combine into a single entry without seeming kind of incoherent, especially as it mixes some minor but still noteworthy events with others that are pretty fundamentally important. But... I'd rather not fracture this into 3+ short posts either, so here we go.
First and certainly most important was that after months of subsurface tension and uncertainty I finally obtained a resolution of sorts to this issue
which for sure wasn't what I hoped but at least wasn't a total disaster. In brief: I finally admitted what I was feeling and was told the feelings were not reciprocal. Expected. He (I guess it's not tremendously revealing to reveal that the person was a he) at least didn't seem to consider the situation awkward at all and even seemed slightly amused/flattered at the interest, and our existing friendship is unlikely to change significantly.
So no harm done, I guess, and at least the worry and dilemma over this issue is no longer eating away at me. On the other hand, the prospect that there might
be some avenue for improving what has become a mediocre life situation and establish some meaning for my life outside my career was one of the things that had been animating me over the past few months, even though I knew the chances were slim. So, now and for the immediate future I will be returning to the long-familiar feelings of emotional isolation and future bleakness.
That was Friday night. Saturday morning I decided (despite having tons of work) that a change of scene was in order and so I scooted off to London for the LondonFurs winter party. It was just a day-trip, and it was a 3.5 hour journey each way, so I wasn't there for particularly long and hardly knew anyone at the party. Still, it was an event to be sure, with an attendance of 200+ at a nightclub with a photoshoot and dancefloor. I brought Cami along and was able to get in some fursuiting (in a walk around the city streets) and relax a bit before heading home.
The next morning (Saturday) I boarded a flight to Dublin to attend a short meeting devoted to a scientific collaboration I recently joined. The meeting was, frankly, not that great either scientifically or socially (I only really knew one person there, and anyway I was kind of in a weird mood due to the above)... but at least I learned some things and was able to advertise one of the projects I'm working on external to that collaboration to roust up some possible interest.
On Tuesday evening I then caught a ride back with some of the conference participants up to Belfast, crossing the once-militarized but now seamless UK-Irish border (who knows what it'll look like in two year's time...) to Belfast, which has a large supernova group and which had invited me to give a talk on Wednesday. I arrived on campus Wendesday morning to find no one from the group there, and the secretary that was supposed to check me in wasn't there either. Lol. The directory took pity on me at last and went with me to buy a coffee: he was quite a character; a solar physicist who must be about 70 years old and whose office was decorated from wall-to-ceiling with superhero action figurines, sci-fi model spaceships, and other ultra-nerdy stuff. After that a group of students took me to lunch (only one of whom worked on anything related to my line of work, so mostly we just chatted about silly social stuff), and the restaurant was super slow so it was almost time for my seminar when we returned. I did what was in my view a not-spectacular job, and then half an hour later had to hop into a taxi to go to the airport to return home to Liverpool.
First up on the itinerary for Thursday was a meeting with my "line manager", which sounds like some position you'd find in a car factory but in the UK seems to be a general phrase for whoever is immediately above you in the hierarchy and responsible for checking up on your job progress. The point of the meeting was to fill out some forms in advance of my one-year review and to check if we had accomplished the baselines set down over the summer. Anyway, I took an IDGAF attitude to the meeting and basically vented about a lot of the stuff I've been whining about on this journal, i.e. that the class had consumed 60 hours a week every week since August and left me no time for anything else in my professional or personal life, other than hanging on by a thread to my external commitments to other projects, and in short that although I had enjoyed teaching a lot, having to start an entirely new course from scratch was a totally unreasonable task to have assigned to a new hire who was also expected to found a competitive research group and manage multiple international research projects.
At least my manager was super sympathetic to the issue, agreed that the workload I'd had over this class was unreasonable, and said that the department had been very happy with my progress/contribution/etc and about my success with the class in particular. I guess that's something. One lol moment came when he also disclosed that the "Programme Leader" who is managing the entire Master's degree program needed to step down next year and was hoping that I would be able to take over (which brought back memories of my "promotion" to head GSI of the introductory astronomy course way back in my second year at Berkeley). Needless to say I ruled that out utterly this time, especially after my manager admitted that it would do nothing to advance my case for promotion.
After that came a bunch of other meetings and then finally the department Christmas party in the evening. After a pretty stressful and busy week, this provided a nice time to interact with colleagues in a social setting over some good traditional food and more than a few helpings of booze of various sorts. Alas, the English Christmas office party is but a shadow of its Danish equivalent: it was held in a restaurant and wasn't too much more than a catered meal, compared to the almost-all-night party (with office-wide trivia games, dance floor, and so on) that was the Julefrokost in Denmark. Still, a good time.
Today was (finally) a normal day at work, leading up to the first weekend in recent memory where I won't be burdened by course preparations (instead I'll be spending it grading, but that will still feel like a relief of sorts).
After that, I'll have half a week to catch up with my research, and then I'll be off back home for the much-needed Christmas holidays.
|Friday, December 8th, 2017|
|End of semester!
My class finally wrapped up for real earlier today, ending with one final computer lab session (which in reality ended up a mix of lecture and lab topics because of the extra content I added.) With that over, I was done for good - and aside from some lingering grading tasks over the next week, freedom and hopefully free time will return to me once again.
No question about it, this was a massive effort. It's hard to believe the class was only 11 weeks in duration: that first lecture back in September feels like half an eternity ago. Preparation for the class has consumed almost everything lately, both work and free time... something that I kind-of expected, but I was still taken aback by how pervasive it was. For sure, I expected lecture preparation to take a lot of time (and it did), but preparing activities for the four-hour weekly computer labs was a double-whammy on top of that: every week required digging up additional data sets and carefully developing walkthrough exercises and full solutions every single week. (All with no support from any TA's or anyone else!)
Actually, while I say "require",in fact I probably could have gotten away with largely half-assing the lab component. Indeed as recently as the week before class started that was still my vague plan, since simultaneously developing both lecture and lab activities seemed like a completely unreasonable expectation and therefore the latter was going to have to be sacrificed. That does indeed seem to be the tack the other instructors in the program took. But, in the end, I sacrificed my weekends and free time to making the labs a success as well.
Without doubt the experience has been hugely gratifying in many ways. Developing a course from scratch (covering material that is largely outside my field) was a genuinely new challenge, quite different from anything I've done before. As I look back at everything, I feel no small amount of pride that I was able to do as much as I did under the time constraints available, and after years of narrow specialization I feel much more confident and flexible as an academic. And despite the effort the course was even a little bit fun: the fact that I was teaching a very general concept (statistics) represented an opportunity to dive into the data literature of all sorts of random fields from political science to weather to economics.
It also seems to have gone over well: while official course evaluations are apparently done online (and I likely won't see them until January or later) I informally gave a paper evaluation to my students for my own benefit, nearly all of them gave all the aspects of the course very high ratings and had a lot of positive things to say in the written feedback. I feel pretty good about that too, especially since there's quite a bit that I know could still be improved in order to make things even better for next year.
At the same time there were more than a few frustrations; most notably just how time-consuming it was and how little support I had for such a mammoth effort. The effort I invested came with real costs. Never having any free time severely hampered any chance of trying to pursue a social life outside work and has darkened my attitude since September. The research hit has also been massive, preventing me from authoring a first-author paper on the event of the century, halting all of my major projects, and making me look like a slacker in other research collaborations. I was also aggravated to learn a couple weeks ago that the other new faculty hire this year was given a fully-developed lab class with TA support as her teaching duty. Even a little support (i.e. a TA for labs and grading) would have made a world of difference for me.
One positive attribute of being 100% responsible for every aspect of the course, though, was that I was able to tie things together coherently in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. The mammoth preparatory effort is now all behind me - and with all the materials developed next year will be completely different in character. And with luck, I'll also get some recognition of my accomplishments that I can call upon in the future the next time I'm asked to explain my contributions to the university or (if need be) in the next job application.
|Wednesday, December 6th, 2017|
|Midwest Furfest 2017
The end of the semester is finally closing in fast: my final class of the semester (and until next fall) is in two days. All my materials are prepared, so once Friday is over all that remains is a day or so of grading. It's been an intense effort, even more than I had expected (which was a lot) - effectively knocking out all my research time plus my free time including most evenings and weekends since September. Still, it's been rewarding in a number of other ways, and has overall been a positive experience.
Among the effects of that has been to basically lock down my travel schedule. From early-September through November I only left town twice and only for day trips, both for work: once to Leicester and once to Coventry (giving talks). With things finally wrapping up, that lockdown can finally break and I can resume scampering around everywhere!
I got a headstart on that already this past weekend by hopping back to the US to attend Midwest Furfest again. For a long time it was unclear if that was really going to be tenable: the con is Thursday to Sunday, and I was teaching on Friday - sufficiently close to the end of the term that I wasn't terrified about it causing me to fall behind, but still in conflict with the actual class day. Fortunately, I was able to reschedule the class to Thursday (I didn't explain the reason to the students :P). This meant for an exceptionally busy final week of November since I had one last prep day, but once Thursday class was done and after a frenzy of packing and a night's sleep I was off to Chicago!
The con was already in full swing by my arrival Friday. Thrilled as I was to be there, I was already starting to worry about teaching prep and overdue research (a lack of wifi on the flight meant I hadn't been as productive on the ride over as I hoped) and adjusting was difficult, so I gave into jet lag and crashed early at around 9 PM. I woke up at 3 and spent most of the morning working, which by the time 10 AM came around and my friends were awake mostly alleviated my guilt and from then on I was able to transition back into con mode and enjoy the rest of the weekend.
As has already been widely publicized, MFF was enormous this year, continuing its exponential growth trend and surpassing Anthrocon as the world's largest by a sizeable margin. I had been worried that this was unsustainable in recent years - and while one effect is the instant-sell-out in the Hyatt (I haven't been able to reserve a main-hotel room since 2015 and have had to rely on more fortunate friends) the mass overcrowding of the lobby was partially alleviated by finally moving into the convention center space across the street. Despite a rather unpleasant walk through a long, narrow, overheated skybridge this was a massive improvement: the new dealers' and artists' rooms are bright and airy ballrooms offering far more space than the cramped, fragmented basement areas of the Hyatt.
And needless to say, although thanks to the enormous size a huge number of furries I knew were there, most of which I caught up with (even if a few of which I couldn't!) I had little time to attend anything official and not as much time to fursuit as I'd like, but I made the most of the time I had and was immensely glad to have come... even if the ride back was unpleasant as I sailed off in the exact opposite direction as almost everyone I knew.
Oh well, no time to sulk. Important decisions have to be made soon, an important event just exploded in the sky, and I'm hopping over to Ireland next week for another research trip that requires quite a bit more preparation.
|Monday, November 20th, 2017|
My parents came to visit this weekend, arriving Thursday afternoon and leaving this morning. They're in the middle of a grand tour of the UK, most of which involves my father visiting various work friends of his who are scattered about the country. This was true even when they were here: on Friday they went to see Liverpool's museums (I was busy teaching that day, of course), but then on Saturday we went to visit one older couple south of Manchester and on Sunday a different one.
I came along as well despite some reservations. There seemed to be good reasons to do so: these were other senior astronomers in the region and I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to make myself better known to that crowd. Plus: the couple hosting us on Saturday had used to live in my hometown when I was a child (and their
daughter - who I knew as a 5-year-old but only vaguely remember - would be attending, and said she wanted to meet with me), and one of the guests the other dinner meeting (on Sunday) I am sort-of-collaborating with in a very loose sense on a project.
While it was probably still the right thing to go, it certainly felt more like an obligation than anything else, especially given that I had to give up 7 or so hours of weekend work time in each case. Conversation topics were not really of interest and I hardly said anything. The Saturday couple's daughter couldn't make it (baby was ill) and useful work conversation on Sunday was very brief. Since I invested my "free" time in that I didn't get to join my parents for any local tourism (had to work). Oh well.
After seeing my parents out the door this morning it was back to work. Today seemed like it was promising to be an uneventful day, but it certainly wasn't. More on that... another time.
|Friday, November 17th, 2017|
Things have, as expected, been intense over the past couple weeks. I guess my spirits are a little better than last time I posted here, although not necessarily for any genuinely good reason (certainly I'm no more optimistic or certain about the future than I was a few weeks ago). Perhaps it's part conscious fatalism and a decision to avoid thinking about difficult questions. Mostly, probably it's just because there have been so many immediate responsibilities at work absorbing all my time and attention.
Teaching, of course, remains far and away the largest time sink. The end of that is thankfully getting closer and closer (two more weeks go and one week is already prepped). Moreover last week we had an official meeting to discuss the program which had a student representative in charge of giving feedback, and I was immensely relieved to find that my course is getting very good reviews: the students in the program said it was the most interesting of all the courses they were taking and clearly appreciated the effort I was putting into it. (The only complaint was that I was giving them too much homework. :P) That's not quite as gratifying as you might think: given the immense amount of time/energy I've put into things I would have been horribly crushed by anything other
than a glowing review, but certainly it has kept the motivation going.
Last week I made my way to Leicester to give the astronomy colloquium, a trip which (quite remarkably enough given my travel habits) is my first outside Liverpool since September. Given my recent time crunch I unfortunately more-or-less had to recycle a year-old talk with a few tiny updates (which fitted in awkwardly among the other content at times), and while it went acceptably it was hardly my best performance. The timing of the visit was also poor, since I managed to visit the UK's largest GRB department on the day that everyone who actually works in that area was out of town at a mission proposal to build a new GRB satellite! (Not really my own fault since nobody warned me, but I should have checked before setting the data.) Still, it was nice to get out of town for a little - even if it exacerbated my recent time crunch.
Needless to say that amongst all this, finding time for research among all this has been a struggle; doing research well has always required a lot of focus which just isn't available with so many other worries. The closest I've managed was an overdue referee report, which was a bit of a frustrating (if sadistically gratifying...) experience in and of itself. I had received the first draft this summer, co-authored by a young student and a professor who is my age, works in my field, recently began a faculty job at one of my dream schools (I had applied for that job and was rejected without comment), and is also an extremely sloppy scientist who cuts every corner and never checks her own work. (Which apparently gets you a faculty job at some places.)
Anyway, said first draft was filled with numerous mistakes (and a near-total ignorance of the existing literature) but had one moderately important result in it. I told them that if they could convince me that their result was not due to a screw-up the result might be publishable, and I pointed out what I suspected they had messed up. A second draft came back in August cleaning up some of the mistakes but sticking by their result. I again expressed skepticism and requested that they check their work a third time and send me a figure documenting their procedure. The third report came back in October with the requested figure, which they cheerily declared supported their conclusion. In fact it demonstrated the exact opposite (either they were lying before or utterly incompetent). Recommendation: reject. Learn basic spectroscopy plzkthanks before you waste my time as a reviewer.
There's been no seminar or overdue referee reports this week, thankfully - although I'm supposed to write a bunch of text for a proposal (I've been ignoring it), plus write a proposal review (ditto). This has been put off because my parents are in town visiting me this weekend and I had to spend a day cleaning up the mess of my living room and set up the previously-empty spare bedroom. Maybe I will sneak some research time in tonight for these overdue tasks... :|
But: not much longer. Only two more weeks of class remain, and after that comes MFF (!!!) and soon after the Christmas holiday which are very
well earned. Just need to keep above water.
|Monday, November 6th, 2017|
|Another mid-semester update and grant failure
It's been, all in all, a week quite a bit like the last few, involving more or less nothing except for work. In contrast to my once-optimistic expectations that I might have things "under control" by this point in the calendar, preparation of various sorts occupies an outlandish amount of my time. My daily hopes to spend a day on other things (including an embarrassingly long slate of deferred or ignored research tasks, not to mention a raft of important personal tasks) almost never come to fruition and I still haven't traveled beyond about a two-mile radius since early September. Tonight was Bonfire Night (AKA Guy Fawkes Day) and even though I live directly next to the harbor where the local festivities occur the best I could do was to watch the fireworks from my apartment window since I had no time.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that end is approaching quickly. A major reason that teaching has been so overwhelming is because the semester schedule is so compressed; I'm being expected to provide a Master's-level course in practical statistics in a period of only 10 weeks. So I'm already 60% of the way through and (given that I have materials prepped for about 1.5 weeks in advance at all times) in some sense I'm closer to the 3/4 mark.
On the other hand, there is a list of non-teaching responsibilities that will add to the pressure: I'm giving three colloquia at UK institutions over the next month, plus my parents are visiting for a week right in the same period. Meanwhile the last few weeks of the course are by far the most difficult to teach since my familiarity with much of the material is minimal and I'm still expected to deliver hours of lecture.
Yeesh. Anyway, one way or another it'll be done in a month; I managed to move the last day of teaching back in order to enable me to leave town for MFF over the weekend and that
will surely be a nice capstone to the semester. And since I won't be teaching in the spring and will have materials prepped for this course from here on out, the overwhelming business of this semester won't recur for a long, long time.
Or so I can hope.
Speaking of hope or the lack thereof, the other significant news from this week is unfortunately massively negative. Back in December January I spent a lot of time preparing a grant application that was put in with the rest of the department as part of a once-in-three-years grant renewal out of which the department pays for many of its activities. As research grants go these days these have a relatively high success rate of about 35%, and although they come along only once every three years it was well-timed to be due the day of my arrival. Indeed one of the big pushes for me to arrive by February 1st rather than serve out the last few months of my fellowship in Denmark was to secure my eligibility for this grant.
I didn't get it, obviously, and while not exactly shocking (the preliminary feedback for this was positive, but grant applications are never guaranteed) this is dismal news for my research career. I did not get a new PhD student this year, and as I noted a couple entries back the large EU grant proposal fell by the wayside due to teaching duties. So with no other grants in the process or on the horizon this implies that my future research accomplishments are going to be strictly limited to what I can do in between teaching/advising duties and whatever my existing student can accomplish in the next two years. (This is unfortunate for her, too, by the way, since having intermediaries between a student and a professor is very advantageous for mentorship/networking...) Nor will I have funding or any really good reason to travel to conferences beyond once a year.
Most other professors in the department don't seem to have any funding of this type either, and a small part of me may even be glad at not having the extra management responsibility or the ethical dilemma of stranding a research group in the event that I bolt in a year or two. I don't think it will endanger my employment here although it probably does eliminate any chance of an early promotion. Still, it sucks, especially falling on the heels of so much other research misfortune and personal distress and fitting into a "falling star" narrative that is beginning to haunt me. In particular, it probably all but guarantees that the hope of trading up someday to an high-level research university position is gone forever. High-caliber universities hire on the basis of expected grant income and I will have nothing to show for my first few years as faculty aside from a few papers and continued dilution of my earlier accomplishments.
And yeah, maybe that's fine; I still have permanent job and I'm thankful for that but feeling like there is nowhere to go but down (or at least sideways) is hardly uplifting and continues to make me question the vast personal sacrifices of the last couple years.
Well, whatever. I literally do not have time to worry about this right now. We'll see if the end of the term brings relief or just more brooding.
|Thursday, November 2nd, 2017|
One of the downsides of moving to Denmark was the fact that Halloween disappeared from the calendar: it was never a tradition there and although awareness of the holiday has been increasing in recent years, there certainly never were any parties to go to.
But, now that I'm in the UK, Halloween is back on the calendar! Which actually would have meant relatively little since I'm certainly not on any grad student or postdoc social mailing lists, but a few weeks ago one of the other faculty members sent around an e-mail to his research group and the other faculty announcing a Halloween party at his house on Sunday, the 29th.
So of course
I was going to go, even if it was immediate from the beginning that this was not quite the type of Halloween party that I was used to: it was to start at 4 PM and end around 8 PM, and referred to children's activities and the like. A boozy dance party this was not.
The dilemma, obviously, was whether to go all-out and bring Cami or try something a little more subdued until I had a better sense of the attendees (and possible repercussions of having it become widely known in the apartment that I dress up as a dog sometimes.) But since I didn't have time to figure out another costume anyway (or at least one that wasn't crapy) and also hadn't fursuited since July, I decided to just go for it.
I arrived early and stashed the suitcase in some bushes and then walked around the block and showed up "normally" wearing a lame costume from a discount store. I hung out for about two hours chatting with people gathering "info" and deciding whether I really wanted to change or not... until about 6:30, when people were starting to leave already and I decided that if I was going to fursuit that it was now or never.
So I slinked into a side room, suited up, and returned as Cami. Of course all the kids (and there were a lot of them: maybe 10, with an age range between 2-9 years or so) went nuts and I was instantly mobbed with tail-pullers and ear-grabbers, but I was able to control the situation marginally by backing against a wall and eventually the surprised parents were able to get the more aggressive children under control, and for the next half hour or so I was in a more standard performance mode with the children who remained interested - which was a wide spectrum (some lost interest rapidly but a couple were entranced basically the whole time.) But as it was getting "late" a few other families started leaving as well and I didn't want to take any risk of overdoing it, so I changed back to normal and returned.
By that time there were only 2 families left, and obviously there was no hope of maintaining anonymity - although I implausibly wink-wink denied things anyway. That group of parents, at least, was thrilled by it, saying that it was "awesome" and that I had "raised the bar of the party" and so on (I also got an effusive note from one parent by e-mail the day after, saying that her kid was so amazed and couldn't stop talking about "the doggie" until he fell asleep).
Whether or not there was anybody who might not
have responded so positively is less clear, and for sure people will see me in a somewhat different light from now on, at least in the sense of realizing that I am (sometimes, somehow) capable of being more emotive and less distanced than I appear to be at work. In any case, the positive responses were more than enough justification and despite some unrelated negative news lately (more on that later) I feel pretty good about myself after the weekend.
Until next Halloween, then...
|Monday, October 16th, 2017|
|Cosmic luck, and cosmic misfortune
A lot of you who follow me here might remember my semi-cryptic reference back in August about what I termed the Most Exciting Astronomical Discovery Of the Decade
. I finally get to talk about it on the record now (it was agreed to be kept a secret from the public until the results were confirmed in published papers).
A few summary articles in the popular press:https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/10/16/scientists-detect-gravitational-waves-from-a-new-kind-of-nova-sparking-a-new-era-in-astronomy/https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/science/ligo-neutron-stars-collision.htmlhttps://www.space.com/38469-gravitational-waves-from-neutron-stars-discovery-ligo.html
In brief: for the past few years LIGO has been bouncing lasers through tunnels to search for miniscule changes in the fabric of spacetime produced by collisions of ultra-compact, massive objects in other galaxies: black holes and neutron stars. This has resulted in two big and well-known splashes already: two huge black holes merging were detected in 2015, and the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to the leaders of the experiment just a few months ago. This was amazing, but from the point of view of an astronomer it's a bit dull: black holes generally don't produce light, and despite the conversion of huge amounts of mass to gravitational waves the effect on its surroundings is minimal.
What astronomers had really been hoping for (and what LIGO was really designed to detect) was the collision of neutron stars, which are made of condensed neutrons and are expected to tear each other apart and hurl neutron-rich matter into space. That's way more exciting because: (1) it should make optical light which allows you to determine exactly what galaxy it came from what distance, and (2) this process should spew all sorts of heavy-element matter into space as the neutrons condense into atomic nuclei; this has been suggested to be the primary origin of much of the heavy elements in the Universe (and on Earth).
Unfortunately LIGO was more or less coming up dry on the latter one: two years after it first turned on it had detected several black-hole mergers and not a single one from a neutron star. A variety of other observations suggested that if a neutron star collision happened the emission was going to be faint and red 99% of the time would produce no observable gamma-rays, and the LIGO network would take another 5-10 years to be able to narrow the on-sky search region to an area small enough to look. At a recent GRB conference, I and a few others took turns giving guesses about the first time astronomers would be able to this and the best guess was sometime in the mid-2020s. If we were lucky.
And yet, on August 17th all that pessimism evaporated when LIGO reported the detection of a neutron-star merger ripple in its laser system far stronger than almost anyone had expected to see. Within a few hours an on-sky search region that was 10x smaller and more manageable than any of the previous events was sent to astronomers. Within a few hours after that a gamma-ray satellite team detected they had detected a GRB effectively simultaneous to the LIGO signal. And within a few hours of that a candidate optical-light signature was reported as well, and shown to have a bizarre spectrum that decisively seemed to ID a neutron star merger as the course of the event.
It was almost "too good to be true" and yet it really was, with more and more data over the ensuing days only confirming that this was something new and completely unseen before: an ultra-hot cloud of nuclear matter that expanded and cooled (while such a cloud had probably been produced by previous GRBs, it was always masked by a bright shockwave and also much further way, and was unobservable).
Since then the GRB/supernova communities have been in a bit of a frenzy. Almost nobody expected this to be so easy and to obtain so much data with so much richness: the event was so close and bright that even small telescope were able to get in on the action. The counterpart was discovered independently by five different groups and followed up by almost every observatory that could access that part of the sky.
Which gets me to the misfortunate side of things, while it may have been a dream event for astronomers it was very nearly a worst-case scenario for me, since you could hardly have picked a worse time and place for an event like this to happen for my purposes.
I'll start with the position: the event was far in the southern hemisphere and also close to the Sun's position, which meant that almost any optical telescope north of the equator was out of the game. This included, prominently, my university's telescope in the Canary Islands, the telescopes at Palomar (which I am highly familiar with and continue to work with via my Caltech collaborators), and most of the telescopes in Hawaii. I was part of giant collaborations using the European telescope facilities to follow it up, but as there were about a hundred others realistically there was nothing I could do to help, and indeed for the most part the PI's of those projects essentially just wrote their papers and invited me on only at the last minute.
The timing, meanwhile, was almost conspiratorily bad: I found out about the event when I woke up on the morning I had to pack all my things up from my parents' house and fly to California. I was there for one day as part of a big visit from overseas friends who had also flown into town for the occasion, and after that came the four-day eclipse roadtrip. After that came my flight back to the UK, after that came moving into a new apartment, and after that came two weeks of time which I had to prepare all of my course examination materials for a strict deadline. About the most I could do was to join the near-daily tele-conferences that one of the collaborations I was part of had and send comments on the hastily-written papers that I was part of. There were a number of things I could have done - a host-galaxy paper, TOO programs at Spitzer or other large observatories - but I just had no time, especially in an environment that quickly became hypercompetitive.
I was hardly cut out of the process, in that I'll be co-author on a huge number of these papers (indeed more papers than most people, since I'm simultaneously part of the American and European collaborations.) Still, it's frustrating. I'm not closely involved enough to be able to put this front-and-center in my CV, to score an interview, or to have my name attached with this discovery if I find myself on the job market in a few years. Meanwhile some of my collaborators and quite a few of my competitors did
land the jackpot on this event, and it's been no small amount of frustrating watching some of them lap up the accolades (particularly in the case of a couple competitors who I know to be gigantic dicks). It could have been me instead had the cosmic dice landed another way. It's just one more thing that seems to say that my luck really has run out.
What this means for the future is a little unclear. One unvarnished good news is the entire physics/astronomy community now has had it made clear to them what kind of super amazing science is possible in my field, and one can hope that grant agencies and future hiring committees will sit up and pay attention next time they're reviewing grant or job applications. I may have been disadvantaged relative to competitors but a rising tide raises all boats to some extent. On the other hand, a big part of me fears that the "stroke of luck" of having this bright, early event was simply that. All the reasons for pessimism remain valid and I would be far some surprised if after 2 or 5 or maybe even 10 years we never again detect an event as fast or early or as comprehensively as this one: that the field "peaked" too soon and is now headed for disappointment, especially for those who largely missed the boat this one time the cosmos did give the community a lucky break.
But, I shouldn't let my own circumstances overly cast shade on what was such an important discovery: this is one of those things that in the end is a spectacular win for the scientific community as a whole and (despite some at-times ridiculous behind the scenes friction regarding authorship order and other disputes that I mostly stayed out of) a case where everything clicked together beautifully to demonstrate how awesome astronomy can be sometimes.
|Sunday, October 15th, 2017|
Well, time to come up for air again. Not a tremendous amount has changed since last time: things have remained insanely busy, mostly because of teaching but also a variety of other reasons. There were a slew of major telescope deadlines over the past two weeks, I administered a couple of oral examinations, my PhD student had to submit a huge report as part of the degree qualifying process that I need to help with / proofread, I submitted another paper (second-author, but with significant responsibilities in the last few days), as well as reading through various other paper drafts that come skidding through my inbox via my collaboration work.
But most of all there has been a tremendous amount of work as part of my teaching duties. I'm three weeks into the semester now, and while things are just marginally less hectic on that front compared to the lead-up to first week it remains an outstanding time-sink.
There are a variety of reasons for this: for one, I haven't ever taken a class in these things before and have to spend a ton of time making 100% sure that I understand something correctly before I stand in front of a class of students and declare that something is true. "Learning on the fly" has worked in practice but it's also something that tends to ingrain in subtle misunderstandings - especially when some of those misunderstandings have actually spread around the field as a whole. (The course textbook is also of little help: it goes into almost no detail on the underlying theory.)
Aside from that, I've also needed to prepare weekly lab activities from scratch: an hour or so of class computer demos plus coming up with 3 hours of student activity. This is the kind of thing where I like to think that I shine so I've been thinking very hard about how to come up with illustrative exercises that build on previous knowledge - but, again, it's a ton of work.
Things seem to be going well, at least, although the first assignment is not due until Friday and I'll have to wait and see until then to get my first concrete notion of whether or not students are "getting" everything.
One downside of this is that I've continued to permit all this effort to devour nearly all of my free time and most of my work time that's not affixed to something with a specific deadline. Indeed, even some things with a specific deadline: one major casualty is that the big (multi-million) EU-administered grant that I mentioned before is due in 48 hours and I have regrettably decided to give up on it.
This is pretty regrettable, since I have what I think is a very strong research idea and the timing is more or less perfect with the Big Astrophysics Announcement I've been referring to for a while finally going public tomorrow as well. It would still be a long-shot and I'm not even sure necessarily that I want a grant that big (it would result in accreting a big group of research underlings and would pin me down here, or at least in Europe). But to not even try seems to confirm that I have crossed a sort of Rubicon and am officially no longer aiming as high as I used to.
I'll probably have more thoughts on that equation tomorrow after I can lift the lid on the Big Research News of the year/decade, which has its own implications for my goals (mainly good but also bad), but it has made for sort of a see-saw weekend emotionally: guilt about it, but also relief that this finally means the slew of deadlines and frantic activity is "over" and that I can be less frazzled and more focused for the rest of the year.
Maybe I'll even be able to get out for a weekend or two again. I haven't even left central Liverpool since I got back from the Netherlands in early September. We'll see. There's lots left to do still, and even as some teaching duties subside new ones (grading) begin soon and the material becomes more advanced and less familiar. There's also all kinds of neglected personal stuff I need to get in order. Sigh. On we go.
|Saturday, September 30th, 2017|
|Teaching begins - and a fork in the road
Last time I checked in here - several weeks ago - I'd just gotten back from a quick weekend holiday adventure in Holland, which had followed an intensely busy two-week period of preparing all the homework materials for the class on statistical methods that I'll be teaching this fall here at LJMU.
I had a couple more days of relative calm, including a nice visit on the 12th from Sabot, Carol, Al, Dex, and Scritch when they stopped by Liverpool for the day as part of their grand UK(/France) tour. I took the afternoon off from work and met them at the train station, and for the rest of the day I finally was able to play tourist (or maybe tour guide) in the city that I've been living in since February. We walked around several of the city's central landmarks, took the elevator to the top of the radio tower overlook, went on a circle trip on the Mersey River ferry, and finally ended with a visit to a couple of pubs before I saw the others off on their train back to London.
Things got busy again really fast after that. Preparing the homework materials was, after all, only a tiny fragment of what was needed to prepare for the course (they call it a "module" here in the UK): lectures needed to be written, hours of lab activity prepped, not to mention scoping out the rooms, checking the software, and educating and re-educating myself in a subject that I only ever learned "on the job" and have never encountered in a formal classroom setting myself. All entirely on my own - no previous materials to work with, no TA. Everything must be done from scratch.
That, alone, has been a 50-hour-a-week job since mid-September. But in fact that's only the beginning: in addition, it's now proposal season and it's a particularly critical one at that, since I've been invited into a major new optical survey but am expected to pull my weight by playing a major role in proposing for follow-up time at other telescope facilities across the world and in space. So there have been daily teleconferences to discuss that, writing of documents, making calculations.
And this all, of course, comes on top of my "regular" responsibilities, which involve supervising a PhD student, two masters' students, reading and commenting on "all" the paper drafts that come flying through my inbox (and they're doing so fast these days...) and the occasional random department service responsibility such as supervising an introductory activity bunch of first-year students for three hours on a random weekday.So...
after a relatively calm first six months on the job the situation has shifted dramatically. Work consumes all of my time (evenings and weekends and weekend evenings included) and much of my sleep. I have not gone more than a mile from work or home since my last post.
There are some rewards, at least. I did at least have my first class yesterday, a huge career landmark after so many years of only teaching in a supporting or cooperative role. It went without incident, the students seemed engaged, and in the end I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and felt great about myself for the next 24 hours. Indeed, despite the workload, preparing for this class has been among the most "fun" things I've done in a while, allowing me to think about things in new ways and exercise mental muscles that have been dormant over the many years since I last was regularly in front of a classroom.
The crazy period is far from over, although there is light at the end of the tunnel. Several major telescope proposals are due on Tuesday next week, so this weekend is every bit as crazy at the last one. But in principle things should decide after that.
But then I face a dilemma: a huge (multi-million euro) grant proposal for EU funding is due on October 17th, requiring a 20-page scientific application and detailed budget. I have long assumed I would apply: this is basically the golden ticket to the top of the discipline in Europe, basically guaranteeing tenure. In fact, since the money is mobile, it's even possible to use it to secure an offer somewhere (indeed almost anywhere) else. In either case, an award at this level would also hugely bolster my credentials to return to the US in a top-notch research spot not long after. Win, and the world of astronomy would be my oyster.
But the chance of success is low and possibly even out of my control: it's entirely possible that thanks to Brexit, the UK will be kicked out of this grant arrangement between now and the time of award and my application will either never be read or (worse) given a top rank only to have the rug pulled out later and the award cancelled. Still, proposal writing is among my strong suites, I have a previous track record with EU research funding, so the chance is far from zero.
Which gets back to my original dilemma from a few weeks ago. There are three paths in front of me, and I don't know which way to follow.
is the path I've followed my whole life, which is to work as hard as I can and aim for the top, always, building on my strengths to accrue more advantages, and getting me to a point where I can hop to some other faculty job somewhere nicer. But as I said before, that path has not led me to where I wanted to be, and while this path was "easy" when I was motivated continuing on it while I'm somewhat dissatisfied risks burnout and frustration.
is to aim for pleasant mediocrity, accept I can't do everything, build a solid set of credentials but limit my working hours to avoid burnout or frustration. This would surely be enough to gradually move up the ranks here, but I can probably forget any chance of ever becoming a top-rank R1 faculty (even though that seemed like destiny as recently as 3 years ago) or getting a job in a competitive location like coastal California.
is to plan an exit route. Having a course in "statistics for data science" dumped on me with no support offered sucks in terms of absorbing my time, but it does have one upside (beyond the challenge) which is that after this I will have a very concrete resume item for bailing and moving somewhere where I actually have a group of friends and weekend activities I genuinely enjoy. The way it was 10 years ago, and perhaps what should have been my primary life goal all along rather than a secondary one that was shoved aside entirely over the past few years.
I'll think about it. One upside, at least, of being so insanely busy is that there is literally no time to worry about life concerns or crises - there's too much work to do. But decisions have to be made eventually, and with a week of solid work to prepare for this course that needs to be sooner rather than later.
|Monday, September 11th, 2017|
I had originally planned to do one more trip this summer and enjoy the flexibility to travel while it lasted - with the start of the autumn semester teaching duties are slated to pin me down to an extent I haven't had to contend with in quite a while. This could have been a lot of things: to begin with there's the UK itself, with Wales and the Peak District and Scotland not particularly far. But: a friend from one of the online chat rooms I've been in the longest lives in the Netherlands, and I haven't been there and years and it's only an hour's flight from the local airport, so I decided that would be my next destination.
Problem was that summer was rapidly running out: July in particular was lost to the need to find a new apartment, and August was of course spent in the US. And even though my class doesn't start until almost the end of September, the time to prepare has very much arrived: in particular, I was mandated
to submit near-final drafts of all of my assignments/exams (anything that is graded!) for review by an examination committee by September 8, three full weeks before classes start. But at least that made for a pretty logical free weekend after
the teaching deadline but before
actual class became too imminent, so I booked a quick ticket to Amsterdam leaving September 9 and returning September 10.
Preparing for the teaching deadline was intense, and probably one of the busiest weeks I've had in recent memory. I'm teaching a class on statistics using the R-language, even though I've never formally taken statistics or used the R-language. I know most of the material but only in an informally and self-taught manner, but I didn't know the language and some concepts were unfamiliar entirely, so I was simultaneously giving myself a crash-course in stats, learning a new computer language, thinking of exercises to help demonstrate those stats to others... and
trying to generate / dig up data sets to serve as examples. All in only two weeks!
But, I got it done, and without having to drop any topics or plead for an extension or submit something incomplete or embarrassing. So I'm pretty proud of that.
Which freed things up for a (nearly) no-stress weekend in Holland. I woke up painfully early Saturday morning, grabbed a bus to the airport, and a few hours later was in Amsterdam and then Eindhoven in the southern part of the country, where I'd never been before. We spent the day doing some of the local tourist spots, including a cave network created by centuries of limestone quarrying and the top of a "mountain" that marked the highest point in the Netherlands (a whopping 1058 feet! :P) on the border with Germany and Belgium. We drove back on a somewhat circuitous route through Belgium itself and I was dropped off at my hotel in central Eindhoven.
The next day I met up with a different group of friends - one who also lived in Eindhoven and another who happened to be in town the same weekend as me. Until the night before I wasn't even sure I would have the chance to see them (my afternoon flight the next day was awkward for their plans) but in the end things worked out nearly perfectly, since that Sunday they had plans to go to a zoo and conservation park outside the city for a volunteer-appreciation event and had one extra ticket to give to a friend that I was able to come along under! So at the price of one more early wake-up (and some taxi hassle) I was able to join them for much of the day and see a number of African animals, including several types of lemur, one of which I was able to hand-feed!
But after that I did have to rush back to the airport to catch my flight. Of course when I got there I found out that it was delayed anyway and I had to wait around in the terminal for a couple hours, but I was off to Liverpool before too much longer.
But that is it for travelling for a little while. Time to buckle down on teaching, research, grant applications, mentoring, starting...
... well, starting Wednesday, because tomorrow some friends are visiting me
! More about that in a couple days!
|Thursday, August 31st, 2017|
Well, time for another birthday.
It was uneventful, of course: spent mostly on teaching prep, science, and talking to friends online. I did not hear back from the apartment managers about the possibility of changing units, so that's still somewhat in suspense and might remain so until I actually call them (which I'm reluctant to do). We'll see.
Life landmarks are good for self-reflection, and the timing of this one certainly seems appropriate. After a few months I am "settled in" at Liverpool in at least a broad sense, and I have a clearer view of what the future will look like compared to a few months ago. My August travels to several of my previous haunts have helped put the past in perspective as well. So there's a lot I could write, and I could probably do so for hours and hours: quite a bit is on my mind, as many of the things that once seemed settled aren't anymore. But my time is limited, so perhaps it's best to stick with an abbreviated version.
I should begin by noting that there really is a lot that is good going on. For one, despite my pay cut in accepting this job I still have total financial security, and work is going objectively quite well: I've accomplished my goal of securing long-term employment in a job that lets me work on and think about awesome science, interact with very smart people, and use observations from cutting-edge equipment. I'm happy with how my student is doing so far and my more senior colleagues (the ones I see on a daily/weekly basis, anyway) are quite positive to interact with. Teaching may be a bit of a drag on research but it'll bring new and interesting challenges for me over the next few months that will keep me engaged through the end of the year and leave me with new skills and experience.
Still, I guess the main thing I've been thinking lately is that I have quite a bit of life dissatisfaction now, mostly in areas that I had thought or hoped were settled. While all of this is nice, there's a bit of a is this it??
sense dogging me. My life was, after all, better a year ago, better than that three years ago, and better than that ten years ago. Part of this is intrinsic to my career: I didn't do as well on the faculty marked that I'd hoped and expected and feel slightly like a disappointment, and my access to observational data is far more limited and I'm at a very obscure university. Another part of it is a direct consequence of that: I had little choice geographically in where I could take a job and ended up in a small city in a country I have few friends, a continent away from from my closest friends and family. Prospects for major improvement are not great, at least not for several years and without a lot more work and lucky breaks and another painful job hunt. My friends who left the field after the PhD (and many furry friends who got a 4-year degree a in computer science or engineering and went straight to employment) get to live in the Bay Area or other social hubs and generally get paid huge multiples of what I get... was all the work and sacrifice really worth it?
And another part of that is that I have, again started to feel distressed about what I might vaguely call my personal situation
. Part of that is that life alone without a local friends network is making me feel these things more acutely: it sure would be nice to have somebody to just always talk with in the evenings or go to dinner with on a random weekday, however that was achieved. But the other (and probably way more significant) part is that at least over the last month I've become fairly convinced that there is actually a specific person that I have some sort of "feelings" for (and indeed probably have had for years). Not, to be clear, attraction or even "romantic" feelings - that hasn't changed - but at least a very genuine hope for much closer and more frequent interaction, to an extent would probably be something a little beyond even a good friend. But of course
just as I figure that out, I also discover that said person is in some sort of relationship with someone else already, and of course lives on a different continent and anyway I don't know this person's gender preferences and am pretty good friends with them already and don't want to mess that up and make life wildly awkward for us and others and etc. etc... Rrrf.
Watch this space, I guess. Most likely I will resume my general risk-averse strategy of not really doing anything other than what seems obviously safe at the time and maybe in another 10 years I'll manage to feel this way about someone else and probably that will also be impossible >:| Or maybe I'll forget all this and be embarrassed I ever wrote it.
Oh well. Onwards towards the new semester.