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|Wednesday, July 19th, 2017|
|Apartment searching (and London furry fun)
Basically since the day I moved into this apartment I've been planning on bolting at the soonest opportunity, once the six-month least expired. My original apartment search here back in January was borne of some desparation: I only had two days to accomplish it and had made no appointments in advance, and when the first place that I liked was immediately snapped up by someone else before I could claim on it, I ended up plunking down on the next place that was even remotely acceptable.
The apartment is admittedly nice in some ways. For one it's ridiculously close to work, perhaps a 7 or 8 minute walk. It also has a huge bedroom, large living room, extensive kitchen with plenty of counter space, and has been recently renovated, and it's well under-budget. But it has many flaws: The bedroom is next to the boiler (loud) and the entrance to the building. It has huge windows that sap energy. It's next to an alleyway frequently filled with refuse and graffiti, and doesn't feel secure. And so on.
But my six months are up at the end of July, so after returning from Copenhagen I've been plotting my next move. In principle I now have vastly improved flexibility and knowledge: of what I can afford, where the better and worse parts of town are, what to look for in a UK apartment, and so on. Furthermore I have a whole month to decide and as a special bonus I have the option to put off moving until late-August and save a month of rent, since I'm conveniently leaving the country for a long US trip right at the end of my tenancy.
Of course, the practice doesn't quite match the theory, and it's still been a frustrating experience - the first two apartments I saw last week were definitely unacceptable, and although I had four viewings scheduled Thursday two cancelled. Among the other two, one was great but the agent hasn't been returning my calls since despite numerous promises, and the other was even better but is quite far away.
This last option is truly excellent (it's a trendy-looking new development on the waterfront, the sort of place I've sort of coveted for a long time) although the 25-minute walking commute through the busiest part of the city isn't optimal, and I worry about regretting a decision to move there once I start regularly burning 50 minutes every day commuting. (It's also one of the more expensive listings within town.) I'm right on the threshold of springing for it anyway, although a steady trickle of agencies finally returning calls and new listings appearing continues to complicate the decision.
Possibly I'll figure it out tomorrow and not be paralyzed by indecision. Or I'll string it out until after an appointment Thursday for a much closer and potentially also-nice apartment and hope that the one promising listing doesn't evaporate in the meantime.
Aside from that, things are going well enough. Due to numerous distractions July has alas been minimally productive at work: I'm probably overdue for a general work/career update here, which I might provide soon if I can get this apartment business out of the way this week as planned. And although I strictly avoided scheduling any international trips this month in order to focus on said apartment search, I did have time to hop the train down to London for the annual summer London Furs party, which was totally awesome: a four-hour floating rave on a boat in the Thames followed by an all-day bar furmeet (I was able to bring Cami along and had some good fursuiting fun to boot!). Hopefully I'll be able to make it down there more often in the coming years!
|Thursday, July 6th, 2017|
|Prague and Copenhagen
This year's pan-European general astronomy meeting was in Prague last week. I was initially tepid about going: there was a GRB session, but there hasn't been a lot new in the field over the past year and the rest of the conference didn't look exceptionally useful. But, I have a PhD student working with me now and figured that this would represent a useful opportunity for her to meet some other scientists working in related areas, to give a scientific talk for the first time, and provide an incentive for her to get some results out by the summer... so in the end I encouraged her to sign up and signed up myself also, and flew out there last Saturday.
Another incentive was that I'd never actually been to Prague or central/Eastern Europe generally but I'd heard it was an interesting city, so I booked an extra day beforehand to do a little sightseeing and convinced a furry friend to trek down from Berlin by train as well. There wasn't a tremendous amount of time, but we managed to explore the city center, have some good food and beer, walk back and forth along the scenic river that passes through the city, and visit a random museum. Quite nice and remarkably inexpensive.
After that came the conference itself - which was about what I expected (not super interesting, although some random parallel sessions I snuck into had some interesting talks and I learned a few things). Quite a few colleagues were there and it was good to see and talk to them, and my student's talk went over very well.
On Friday I flew straight to Copenhagen for a return visit to my old institute, which (although I'd "promised" to return to frequently before I left) I haven't actually been back to since I left in January. Not much has changed, and everything has changed, since then: there are almost no new students or staff or postdocs, but a ton of out-of-town visitors were there for workshops and the professors were making plans to hire a large number of people in the coming years thanks to some major grants that they finally got ("conveniently" just as I was leaving.)
The trip was actually only 50% work-related at best; Saturday and Sunday I spent just outside Copenhagen staying at the house of a furry friend there and doing activities with her and a small sub-group of Copenhagen furs that I got to know during my last half-year or so living there. The agenda wasn't too ambitious, but we toured one of the royal palaces on one day and went to see the zoo the next; the weather was mostly agreeable (at least over the weekends) and all had a good time.
I headed back to the UK on Wednesday early in the morning and was back at the office by noon. And with that my travels are over again for a while (where by a while I mean three weeks, and exclude domestic trips of course!) In the meantime it's time to focus on grinding out some new research results, catching up with some bureaucratic nonsense, and finding a new apartment.
|Sunday, June 25th, 2017|
|Quick trip to Switzerland
Well, things certainly got busy quickly after the last time I posted here. Largely this was self-induced: with summer here my cravings to go to the mountains have been on the rise. While I had previously figured July would be the best time to arrange a trip in Norway or the Alps, I realized that (1) this is the middle of high season and everything would be incredibly crowded, and (2) I might be busy finding a new apartment and/or moving in July. So instead I bumped up the trip to this month and purchased a last-minute plane ticket from Manchester to Zurich to spend a long weekend (Saturday-Tuesday) in the Alps.
Of course this meant a bunch of work got pushed before the trip and after the trip (with a conference coming up there is a hard and pressing deadline to address), meaning a lot of late nights at work and little time for anything fun when I was at home. But the trip itself was lovely, featuring perfect weather the entire weekend and some of the most awesome scenery in the world.
I left work late on Friday afternoon (bringing nothing but a day pack with basic hiking gear and my phone) to catch my late flight out of Manchester, then checked into an airport hotel in Zurich (after a brief misadventure getting on the wrong train). The goal of the trip was to go hiking and I didn't allocate much time to visit cities, but I spent a couple hours on Saturday in Zurich (beautiful with its canals and lakefront) and a little bit of time in Lucerne (with its own beautiful canals and its own beautiful lakefront as well). My destination was Engelberg, where I arrived mid-afternoon.
There wasn't enough time for a real hike and I still needed to buy maps and figure things out, so I decided to suck it up and take the wildly overpriced cable car up to the top of Titlis, a 3100m mountain that is one of the highest in that area. It was a spectacular journey and it was remarkable to step off the car a few minutes later in an arctic landscape of glaciers, snow and fog. Still, unambiguously it was not worth it: it felt like a tourist trap, with a mostly Indian and Chinese clientele that was seemingly bused in from the cities below as a day trip (since I saw almost no Indians or Chinese anywhere else during the weekend). Everything was crowded and the views were mostly obscured by fog. Oh well.
I had a hotel in town for Saturday night and checked into that, then woke up early the next morning for the "real" part of the trip, which was a 2-day hike in the mountains. Ignoring the cable cars I hiked straight up out of the valley to the alpine country above, eventually making my way to a mountain hut by mid-afternoon. I spent the rest of the day relaxing there and reading a book with spectacular scenery all around.
Sunday was even nicer, although I had a couple of major decisions to make: one complication of booking a trip in the early summer was that the snow had not fully melted from the high passes yet; the hut was already almost at the snowline and I had another 400 meters to rise (and descent) to make my way over a steep pass. I had no winter equipment at all. But I decided to go for it anyway, trudging up the snowy path and sliding down the snowbank on the other side into the next valley. All in all I was over the snow for about two hours but eventually made it through and descended to the lower elevations again. After another 15km or so of hiking (making a long circuit through three different drainages) I made it back to the slopes above Engelberg and checked into another mountain hut. On Monday I woke up, hiked back down to the village, and took the train back to the airport and then continued on home.
All in all it was a wonderful trip. Despite being inspired by and conceived as something similar to my hike in Norway last September there were differences. The scenery was more spectacular with much more vertical relief, but also much more developed (cable cars, ski runs, cattle and goat grazing). My phone had reception almost the entire time, allowing me to chat with friends about the hike in real time (and to write some key work-related e-mails relating to an urgent issue, for better or worse!) The huts were similarly empty since things were off-season, although staff was there, and the other hikers were relatively un-social: all of them were Swiss and weren't particularly interested in chatting with a foreigner in English (beyond basic small talk).
In any case, it was extremely easy to get to (the trails are 2.5 hours by train from an airport I can catch a nonstop flight to for cheap). I'm sure I'll be back.
|Wednesday, June 7th, 2017|
|General Election 2017, Part 2
Ending up being able to vote in a foreign election this year was doubly unexpected. It was surprise to find out I would be eligible, although I had a vague notion of that when I was beginning the process of applying for the visa last autumn. But even knowing that, the next election was not scheduled to occur until 2020, so it seemed quite unlikely that it was something that would be relevant anytime soon. While the government has the power to call an early election in theory
, this had been explicitly ruled out by the prime minister after she took over following the former PM's resignation after the referendum last year. But then she changed her mind - no doubt influenced by a slew of opinion polls showing a huge lead for her party. And since then I've been scrambling to figure out the system and make sure I'm able to make an informed choice.
Mercifully, voting in the UK is a much simpler process than voting in the US. There is only a single question on the ballot: whom to elect as the local representative (MP) in the House of Commons. There is no direct election of the national leader (that job goes "automatically" to the leader of whichever party has the most MP's), and no elected upper house. Local offices are decided in a separate election.
Another important difference is that individual representatives have much less individual influence than (say) a US representative: they are there to select the Prime Minister and from then on typically do as their party leaders advise, except on extremely contentious issues or votes where the party doesn't express an opinion. The prime minister always comes from the winning party and there is no such thing as divided government, except on rare occasions when no party captures a majority of the seats in Parliament (in this scenario, multiple parties have to assemble a coalition.) Therefore a vote for an MP is a vote for the party is a vote for the Prime Minister - there is little distinction.
In other ways the system does resemble that in the US. Elections are "first past the post" in each constituency, and there are competitive swing districts as well as safe districts in which the result is a foregone conclusion. There are two dominant parties, one traditionally center-right on economic issues and socially conservative, the other center-left and socially liberal. The first-past-the-post system heavily favors established parties, and so for most voters it comes down to a choice between these two parties and their leaders.
The two major parties are:Conservative
- The party currently in power with Theresa May as the prime minister; often referred to as the Tories. A mainstream, business-friendly party with many parallels to the Republicans in the US, such as a desire for lower taxes, a willingness to use power abroad and skepticism of foreign influences at home. There are nevertheless some illustrative differences: the obnoxious religious streak is completely absent, for example; the Tories are far more paternalistic ("strong and stable government" is literally their election slogan); many flash issues in the US (government role in healthcare, gun control, abortion) are totally absent. De-toxified as they are in this way, I might have considered myself sympathetic in principle to some aspects of their platform. Still, voting for them this year is inconceivable thanks to the Brexit fiasco: not only do the Conservatives bear responsibility for the situation by calling the referendum in the first place, they now seem intent on making the worst out of it, pushing a "hard Brexit" which will clamp down on immigration at the expense of severing most of the connections the UK has with Europe, many of which are extremely important
to me personally for as long as I live here: health insurance when travelling to Europe, the ability to recruit employees from Europe without the expense/delay of obtaining visas, research funding from EU-managed scientific bodies, the ability to buy/sell in Europe without tariffs and customs checks. May's soft handling of Trump and overreaction to the recent terror attacks has turned me off, too. Obviously I'm not voting this way.Labour
- The nominally center-left opposition party; has some similarities to the US Democrats although because the UK has already accomplished many progressive goals the political priorities of the party often differ and have varied significantly in just the past two decades. Their most recent PM (Tony Blair) was a true centrist and won several elections by adopting a triangulation strategy that took Conservative-like stances on many issues: in particular, lining up behind Bush to launch the Iraq war. That sparked a backlash in time and led to large defections to third parties and a loss of power in 2010; in response the party has swung dramatically in the opposite direction over the past few years, nominating a 1960's style socialist (Jeremy Corbyn) who promises to undo decades of privatization initiatives, make university free for everyone, add new public holidays and new social benefits, and greatly increase the minimum wage: all of it funded by sharply increasing taxes on corporations and high-earners. Left-wing activists love him, but most other members of his party hate him, particularly after the Brexit campaign in which he offered only tepid defense of the EU (like many on the far-left, he is a skeptic of free trade and labor agreements) and then seemed only mildly annoyed with the outcome. He has offered little resistance to the "hard Brexit" the Conservatives are now seeking.
Which is all to say, I'm not so keen on Labour either, at least given its current leadership. My political instincts are generally centrist, and although my time in Scandinavia has made me quite a bit more open to "socialist" policies than I might have been in the past, I remain skeptical. For example: free tuition sounds
good, and is, and works in Denmark. But: most families who send their children to university are moderately well-off; giving them a tax break is not really
a progressive social policy, plus it would greatly increase the dependency of the university on government funding, which could backfire during recession or if the government changes hands. Need-tested grants and government scholarships would be a far cheaper and more progressive way for expanding university access. More holidays also sounds good, but the consequence of that will almost certainly be that those days will be taken out of my vacation budget giving me less flexibility to take time off when I actually want to. Also, as much as I favor more social services and a higher minimum wage, there are limits to how far these can be taken before major tradeoffs become evident: companies will relocate, rich people will move money offshore, and gaps in funding will lead to currency-devaluing deficits and inflation, goods and services will become more expensive, and so on.
And thus I find myself unenthusiastic for either of the two major parties. However, a number of smaller parties also exist and despite their sub-dominant role, they much more influential than any US third-party. Most have at least a few seats (and therefore actual representation in government, some exposure to real policy, and some accountability) and indeed there is at least the possibility of holding the balance of power in a contested election, which actually happened in 2010. So let's quickly spin through the remaining options:
First of all we have the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I live in England where none of these parties are present. There is the UK Independence Party
, an anti-immigrant hard-right party largely responsible for making Brexit an issue in the first place and obviously out of the question (for that and innumerable other reasons). On the far-left there is the Green Party
, which I'm sympathetic to on some issues but goes way too far on many others (military disarmament, "universal basic income", anti-nuclear-power, 4-day week, etc.).
Which leaves the Liberal Democratic party
, a centrist party that has typically mixed positions from both of the two large parties plus some of its own unique stances. In their recent history they picked up many of the disillusioned Labour voters after the post-Blair collapse and were extremely successful for a third party in 2010, winning several dozen seats. However, they went on to disillusion most of those cross-over voters anew by going into coalition with the Conservatives as part of a power-sharing arrangement that ended up coinciding with a period of painful recession and budget-slashing austerity, leading to an electoral near-wipeout in 2015. Their positions in this election are generally reasonable on most issues, offering more modest service improvements (and modest accompanying tax increases) compared to what Labour is offering. Most notably they have taken by far the strongest opinion on Brexit by offering the prospect of a second referendum after the exit terms are negotiated (and therefore a chance to undo the whole mess). This has bought them less support in the polls than they might have hoped (the British public have been reticent to re-open the issue after the divisive campaign last year, which I can kind of understand), but my intense exposure to Brexit-induced havoc makes this a position I'm extremely sympathetic to. All in all, this party is by far the best-aligned with my own views.
Of course, the usual calculus of third-party voting in a two-party system applies here: Labour is clearly better than the Conservatives, and the LibDems have no realistic chance of winning the election, so am I risking throwing away a vote? But, "fortunately" (or unfortunately, depending on the point-of-view) I live in one of the most solidly pro-Labour constituencies in the entire country and there is no danger whatsoever of swinging the seat to the Conservatives (who polled less than ten percent of the vote here in 2015!). Thus my vote is largely a symbolic act anyway, registering in the numerical tallies but not the outcome. So I plan to vote LibDem, watch the local constituency remain safely Labour, and hope the next few years here aren't a total shambles.
Shambles, unfortunately, seems rather likely: every poll has forecast a Conservative majority or at least plurality in the new Parliament. Although the margin looks a lot closer now that it looked a month ago and a hung Parliament (no majority) is conceivable, even the alternative is not that appealing: a multi-party coalition government with no clear mandate and substantial internal disagreements with Brexit already triggered and major turbulence in store in the coming years. But at least I will have gotten a word in.
|Tuesday, June 6th, 2017|
|General Election 2017
As those of you who follow international news are surely already aware, there's an election coming up in the UK on Thursday. A rare snap election was called in April, dissolving the current government and giving the country an opportunity to assemble a new one: every member of Parliament is up for a vote, including the Prime Minister and her rivals in other parties. And, amazingly enough - even though I moved here only four months ago and am not a British citizen - I can vote!
As it turns out, the UK grants not only its own citizens the right to vote but also "Commonwealth citizens" who live here. This rule - almost totally unique in the world - is in effect a holdover from colonial days when Britain was still an empire with "subjects" in various subordinate nations spanning the globe. The right to vote (and the associated laws and conventions) was established when colonialism was still going strong, and although the empire fell apart completely after the second world war, some aspects live on. In particular, most of the former colonies agreed that despite being granted full independence in all practical senses of the term, they would still engage in the pretense of leaving the King/Queen of England as their "official" head of state with a (royally-appointed) governor-general to oversee their affairs, and the peoples of the colonies would continue to be called
citizens of the
Commonwealth. In return, said citizens get the right to vote if they move to the UK. (They used to get other things too, such as preferable immigration treatment: but most of those were stripped away over time. Voting, however, remains.)
Therefore, as (technically) a Canadian citizen I am also (technically) a Commonwealth citizen, and even though I moved here a few months ago and even though I'm only technically on a 3-year visa, I can already vote. It seems almost too good to be true, but the official webpages are unambiguous and I've directly confirmed it with the local authorities.
Whether to actually make use of this right is something I spent quite a bit of time pondering. After all: my right to vote here is due largely to an archaic law (which neither the US nor Canada gives to UK immigrants in return) combined with a family connection to a third country I've only briefly lived in. I've been in the UK for four months only, and haven't formally studied UK civics/government. It's quite possible that I'll move abroad again after a few years. Is it really ethical to vote under these circumstances?
After thinking about it for a few weeks, though, I decided that the reasons to go ahead and vote are far more compelling. (1) While the relevant UK election law may be unusual and it originates from a different era, the government has had many opportunities to debate and change it but pointedly has not done so. The ability for foreigners to vote persists not just as an anachronism but due to the spirit of global openness behind it, at least among the group of countries with the strongest historical links. The right for people like me to vote is legal and deliberate, and wasting it by sitting at home would be be no more appropriate than sitting out any other election I was eligible for. (2) While I've only been here a few months, the results of this election will very much affect me. A number of issues directly relevant to my career are on the agenda. I will almost certainly be here for most or all of the term held by the new parliament and prime minister, which is the issue on the ballot. (3) Even though I just moved here, I've read UK-based newsmagazines since high school, followed UK politics closely since at least 2015, and especially closely since last year - so I am actually fairly knowledgeable about the political process. (4) And to the extent that I don't necessarily know as much about British politics as I might like, voting would be an opportunity to learn more about my newly-adopted country and its political landscape and to feel more closely in tune with local sentiments and issues.
So! I'm registered and signed up, I have my polling card and will be trundling off to the polling booth on Thursday.
This means I have to figure out who to vote for. As that decision is non-obvious and deserves a lot of thought and justification on its own right, I'll leave writing about that until tomorrow.
|Saturday, June 3rd, 2017|
I was back in Liverpool for just under a week before zipping off to my next destination: Confuzzled, the largest UK furry convention. It happens in Birmingham (merely two hours from here by train), so I was able to get in nearly a full day of work before zipping down there on Friday afternoon to begin the furry fun.
Despite my usual excitement about the chance to go be unabashedly furry for a few days, I had a moderate amount of trepidation about this con as well: Confuzzled operates via an enforced-roommate system, where if you don't explicitly select a roommate the con chooses one for you. I was neither able to find a local roommate nor convince any of my overseas friends to come, so I ended up in the random lottery assigned to someone I'd never heard of. Obviously this is a situation with some risk, given the... spectrum of furry personality and behavior. Fortunately this worked out well enough; the random roommate was friendly enough, had no odd habits, was courteous when coming/going when I was sleeping, and so on.
Of course not finding a roommate was part of the broader challenge that I just don't know
that many furs in the UK yet (and Confuzzled is a very UK-centric con, with a relatively small proportion of international attendees), and the ones which I did know generally have their own social circles (or were working, dealing, etc. - or just not at the con) and were hard to track down. As a result I had quite a bit of time by myself, which is never really optimal for a convention.
What this did allow was a lot of time for fursuiting, of course: after the "forgotten paws" incident of Nordic Fuzzcon I was eager to get back into dog-mode this con and I certainly had my chance, getting in multiple hours of fursuiting (like, 4+) every single night. So I was certainly happy about that, and I had a particularly good time fursuit-dancing (which I hadn't done in almost a year!)
The convention wrapped up on Tuesday morning and I headed back home on the train, making it to work just after lunch and giving way to a "normal" week at work. That wasn't the original plan: initially, I'd been hoping to continue my travels for another couple weeks by swinging past BLFC and a major astronomy conference in Oregon next week. Unfortunately, my travel is subject to multiple layers of beaureaucratic approval these days, and my suggestion of being out of town for 3 weeks in a month met the disapproval of the dean. So I'm stuck here, for now.
But summer is here, and I have vacation time to burn, so that won't last for long. Manchester is not the best platform for flying anywhere and I'm conscious that I only have three scientifically productive months left before I'm slammed by teaching, and I've put off planning for far too long already... but I'm hoping that within a few days I'll be able to figure out something sufficiently awesome to spend my time doing for the next couple months. More on that soon!
|Saturday, May 20th, 2017|
|Two weeks in Munich
February may have provided a break, but the past two months have been a travel-blur that approximates some of the busiest periods of my postdoc. After returning to Liverpool from my San Francisco trip on the 2nd of May, I was only in the UK for 5 days before I was off again to the next destination: a conference in Munich (or more precisely Garching, the suburb north of the city that hosts a huge cluster of German research institutes.)
Technically, this was more of a "workshop" than a conference. That is: instead of packing one week with talks and stuffing a conference room with as many people as the venue can hold (as long as they're willing to pay the registration fee), the list of attendees here was small and largely hand-selected by invitation, office space is provided for everyone in the same hallways, and the talks are few and far between. The idea of this format is to get a critical mass of core people together to talk informally but deeply about a specific research topic.
It was a long trip that very much felt like two weeks - and while its direct scientific utility was a bit questionable, I certainly enjoyed the atmosphere very much. It reminded me of graduate school in many ways: here we had a group of a couple dozen people, with broadly similar academic interests, all placed in a totally new location where we knew almost no one except for each other, leaving little question that we were going to get together and socialize all the time
. There was socialization before the morning talks, socialization over lunch in the institute canteen, socialization after the afternoon talks, and then finally socialization at dinner and over a liter or two of Bavarian beer. For two straight weeks! It was fantastic.
The conference was devoted to superluminous supernovae, a relatively new field that I hopped into a few years ago as my first formal effort to work on something other than gamma-ray bursts (many others in my discipline followed suit as GRBs gradually came to be perceived as no longer leading-edge, so this was well-timed.) This focus may have been a little too narrow: the main issues in the subject seemed hard to solve in isolation and I'm not sure this subject had enough experts or issues to fill a multi-week meeting. Also, the format (with a talk in the middle of the morning and a discussion middle of the afternoon every day), despite being excellent for, well, socialization, was too broken-up to allow time to actually get any real work done (i.e. make headway on a paper or something). At minimum, though, it did hugely strengthen my collaboration links with a number of people who were there.
There were some other benefits, too. My father happened to be in Europe the same week and came to visit over the weekend: we went down to Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps and hiked to the top of a small mountain (hilariously named Wank) on the other side of the valley from jagged snowy summits, making for picturesque views. I saw Eurovision for the first time with the other conference-goers and found it way more amusing than I ever thought possible (mostly to make fun of but also to secretly enjoy some aspects of.) A furry friend from the Bay Area randomly landed in town for his own work purposes during the second week and I was able to grab dinner with him and walk around the city a bit.
Great days, and good times. Not everything was a highlight: I probably crossed over into the being-an-asshole side of things during one other person's talk when he presented some results I didn't particularly believe, and (sadly not for the first time) I took my newfound academically-embittered/IDGAF attitude a little too far after too many beers one evening and talked a little too much smack about some mutual scientific acquaintances who weren't present and divulged some stuff that should probably have stayed private. Definitely I'm going to have to clamp this kind of thing down lest it gets back to me in a bad way in the future. Ah well. Also it was a little sad to witness the "last days" of the Munich GRB group which is in advanced-stage disintegration: one postdoc my age and with comparable skills is on his way out of the field and another, who competed with me for the Liverpool job (which I got - probably gallingly for her, since she's English and I'm sure would have loved to get the job I accepted only with huge reluctance), is approaching a similar stage.
Anyway, things move on: I'm back in the UK with little to do this weekend other than work. At least I have Confuzzled to look forward to next weekend.
|Sunday, May 7th, 2017|
|Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2
A small but real frustration of being in the US last week is that it meant that the sequel I've been anticipating for years - Guardians of the Galaxy 2
(or, "vol. 2" as it was officially designated) - would come out in the UK while I was in the US, and then come out in the US while I was in the UK! Either way I'd miss opening weekend as well as the opportunity to see the movie a week earlier than most of my American friends. I did return to the UK on Tuesday morning (two days before the US release) and considered seeing immediately, or even the following night, but gave into jet lag before finally making it out to the cinema on Thursday evening.
For those who might not remember: I liked the first movie
. I really
liked the first movie, to an extent that it's hard to find any comparison for among mass-media cultural properties in my life since high school (basically, borderline obsession
for a month or so after it came out). Rocket was just so
badass, with an innumerable series of great scenes, many of the best quips, and a treatment that revels in elevating a character that most would have written as a joke sidekick into a fierce, complex, full-fledged character central to the plot. The rest of the movie was pretty good too, infused with constant humor and a fast pace that more than makes up for its generic cheesy sci-fi/comic-book plot and extensive plot holes.
Alas, I have to report that the second movie is a bit of a letdown in comparison.
I'll start with by far the most important aspect (which is obviously Rocket.) He has just as much screen time as before, plenty of good lines, and his wise-ass, take-no-crap-from-anyone, sarcastic attitude are as prominent as ever. Still: Rocket's role is unfortunately greatly reduced relative to the first movie, and he seems more like a character in someone else's story (specifically Yondu's) than a central part of the plot on his own. A lot of what he does takes place offscreen, and his character doesn't develop significantly, nor is anything really new revealed about his background. He does a number of badass things alongside
the rest of the cast, but has few chances to shine on his own, and his only real standout scene (a booby-trap defense of the crashed Milano) is one I didn't like very much due to the gratuitous violence and general sense of being overdone. Some opportunities are lost: at one point he is (again) thrown in prison, which to hear him tell it in the last movie is basically his element - but his role in the escape is largely a passive one. Indeed, some of the other scenes have fun at his expense in ways the original movie generally avoided: there is a trash panda joke (admittedly it's a bit funny), and at one point he's seen grooming himself like a cat in public (cute, but doesn't make sense for numerous reasons).
The rest of the movie is different in various ways from the original, some better and some worse. The Star-Wars style civilizational conflict of the original has been replaced by a detailed exploration of Quill's missing father, which is comparatively ponderous and (when said father emerges as some sort of god) definitely
feels more comic-book ridiculous and less space-epic. So there's more time for thinking and exploring the characters' relationships, but less silly fun. Perhaps a bigger difficult is that the movie still feels a need to execute mass comic-book slaughter despite not having a faceless evil army to carry it out on: so the (largely-)neutral Ravagers fall victim en masse not just once but twice (the second time by their own former captain!) This felt more than a little sadistic and left a bad taste in my mouth.
The movie isn't without its charms, of course; the characters are still hilarious, Drax and Gamora are much better-used, and Rocket still does get a lot
of screen time with his signature attitude on constant display. I will probably go see it in theaters another couple times for that reason (and just to make sure that the fact that I saw it while still exhausted from jet lag didn't overly color my perceptions.)
|Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017|
|Return to the Bay Area
I'd barely even got back into town after my last international jaunt before it was time for another one! I returned to Liverpool Monday night (two weeks ago), and on that Friday I was already on my way back to Manchester Airport to fly in the other direction: this time over to San Francisco.
This trip was for a quite a bit longer stay than my weekend hop over to Tokyo, and was nominally for work (and not just vacation). My lack of success in landing a US job had left me with a huge amount of stranded US grant money associated with my large observing proposal on the Spitzer Space Telescope, and with that grant due to expire, the only option was to basically hand the money over to my collaborators. The person best-equipped to make use of it was a postdoc in Berkeley who also had some Spitzer data analysis experience and - importantly - had an undergraduate student working with him willing to spend a year on the project. A year ago I formally sent the money to him, and we agreed to use some of it to allow me to make a couple of official visits to campus to help "supervise" the student and talk about the project generally.
But, work-inspired or not, essentially every Bay Area visit since I moved away has been primarily social in character and this visit was no exception: I arranged to be in town the whole week plus two full weekends on either end, ensuring lots of time to see and do things with old (and some new) friends.
And fun things were definitely done! Unfortunately my flight over experienced a massive delay that resulted in an annoying re-routing and a very late arrival, but I made it eventually. In spite of that, for the third time in two weeks I had almost zero jet lag effects the next day and was up around sunrise and ready to go for the first item on the visit's itinerary - a ski trip to Lake Tahoe!Late-Season Tahoe Trip!
California was in the grip of a multi-year drought for much of this decade and a trip to go skiing in late April has seemed like a ridiculous concept for the past several years. But this year was different with massive, drought-busting storms that have tracked through the state seemingly continuously since January, leaving record snow totals in some parts of the Sierra and leading to the best ski year in recent memory. And of course I wasn't around for any of it... until now! The storms may be gone and spring is well underway but the snow was still there, and at the last minute I conceived a last-minute ski trip between me and a group of furry friends from the area to take advantage of it before the slopes closed.
There were six of us in all, but the friend of mine who'd hosted me the previous night and I headed up a little bit early - he had only recently moved to the area and never been to Tahoe at all, so we left Saturday morning in the hope of doing some snowshoeing around the lake first. Unfortunately, we weren't able to pick up my snowshoes (they're still stashed at a friend's house) and the REI in Sacramento that used to rent them didn't anymore, and we decided to just press on and see what we could do without them. We took one short hike (over snow) to a beautiful overlook above the lake, and then another down and along the shores of the always-gorgeous Emerald Bay - beautiful sights I hadn't seen in years and was happy to be able to share with a close friend. After that dusk started to close in, so we headed to our cheap hotel to wait for the others (and eventually drain a bottle of Japanese whiskey picked up during my travels before sleep.)
The next morning was the actual ski day - and a glorious day it was, even if the mountain end up being half-closed already (the seasonal-shutdown was well underway despite the abundance of snow.) Conditions were warm but not too slushy, the skies were beautifully clear, and for extra furry points nearly everyone else was in an animal kigu (I felt left out!) After essentially closing out the season we stopped for dinner in Sacramento on the way back before I was dropped off at my hotel in Berkeley.Return to Berkeley
For the next five days I was visiting the department, fulfilling my "official" purpose for the trip. For a visit that had only been loosely planned I ended up being surprisingly busy during this period, with several long meetings with my host and his student, plus the need to complete a referee report and write a talk by Wednesday. But there was time for fun too: another furry friend was passing through town Wednesday evening (we went together to check out the Berkeley Art Museum), Thursday afternoon I went for drinks with a group of postdocs, Thursday evening I met with an old friend/roommate for dinner, and Friday evening I went to a board games night with my graduate school gaming group.SF, South Bay, Fur Friends Everywhere
After brunch with some other furry friends Saturday morning, I headed back to San Francisco to meet with some other
furfriends (we played old emulator games) before what was probably an evening's highlight, a huge barbecue furry party down in the South Bay (attendance 100+), where I met at least another dozen furry friends that I hadn't seen in years.
After all of that, Sunday was relatively relaxed: woke up, headed down to another friend's place, and played games most of the late-afternoon and evening before returning to pack up and get ready for the flight home the next morning.Recap and Life Questions...
So needless to say, it was a fantastic week - one of the best ever. It was a little bit like stepping back into the best times of my life seven or eight years ago for a little while, to an environment I was comfortable with and where a social event could be whipped together in a matter of hours or less.
And yet, to be sure, this trip had its frustrations. While "reclaiming" my grad school days for a week was wonderful the contrast between my old life and current one is also a bit painful - a stark reminder of everything that has slipped away as a result of my decision to follow my career dreams above everything else. Whether that was worth it seems more and more questionable by the day. The disastrous results of my North American job search over the last two years continue to grate at me, undermining my once-implacable enthusiasm. The "how are you doing" question came up a lot during this trip, and while *normally* I was able to put on a generic type of "fine" response, in my more honest moments I was kind of surprised at my ambivalence. To top it off, my PhD advisor (who is nominally back to being a professor at Berkeley after a couple years working on a software startup) didn't even bother to reply to my e-mail about meeting while I was there.
Anyway. Perhaps it's best not to dwell on this excessively: by most objective measures I'm doing fine (certainly better than most), able to fly around the world on a whim and with an extensive network of friends worldwide. And despite my increasing disillusionment in the academic pathway and my career steps I still really do enjoy what I work on and the freedom it gives me. Besides, being back in an area for a couple weekends isn't quite the same as living there: as great as my grad school days were I certainly didn't do this much stuff this regularly. Still, over the past few months doubts have emerged in places where there never were doubts before, so we'll see what happens in the future.
|Monday, April 17th, 2017|
|Return to Japan
I've been to Japan a number of times before; enough that for a while it was starting to feel like a regular endeavor: in the early spring of 2008 (Nagano/Tokyo), 2009 (Hokkaido), 2010 (Kyoto), and a similar trip was scheduled for 2011 (Nikko/Kyushu) although it ended up being cancelled and rescheduled to 2012 due to the great tsunami. It was my aspirational destination for many years before going and since the first trip has long been my easy answer for favorite countries to visit.
But, since that trip five years ago I haven't been back. My friend who used to live there moved away, and there hasn't been a major GRB conference in Japan since the 2010/2012 events. And with so much other
travel filling my schedule these days (as my collaboration with European astronomers deepened and I eventually ended up moving there but needing to return to the US frequently) returning hasn't really made its way high enough up on the agenda.
But! Last year one of my friends (Ethan staghorne
) moved to Japan, re-establishing at least one excellent excuse to come and enjoy another visit. Being overly busy with travel remains a difficulty and finding a time to slot this in was a challenge (especially since I also wanted to avoid the humid summers) but after I settled into the UK job I took a look at the calendar, identified an open spot in mid-April that coincided with the long Easter weekend, and booked up a quick holiday trip, leaving the Wednesday before Easter and returning Easter Monday.
And, the time finally came this week! The flight (connecting in Copenhagen, for old times' sake) was uneventful and generally pleasant and I arrived in Tokyo on Thursday morning, making it to Ethan's apartment a little before noon.
Since I'd done most of the "obvious" touristy stuff in Tokyo already but didn't have time to plan something extremely ambitious such as a weekend in some other remote city I decided that the itinerary for this trip would be based largely around day-trips to the mountains outside Tokyo, rather than Tokyo proper. But for Wednesday, I was jet lagged and the day was half-over anyway - so we stuck with a less-ambitious agenda of ascending to the Tokyo Skytree, then walking past the Asakusa temple and over to a "bird cafe", which isn't really a cafe at all but has a room filled with about 200 birds that fly around and (often) perch on you. (Just to get the "eccentric Japan" experience.)
On Friday we went south, taking the train to Kamakura south of Yokohoma to see the local temples and shrines dotting a few-mile hike through the forests before ending up at the famous giant Buddha statue. From there we walked down to the beach (which, I realized, was the first time I had been anywhere near the ocean in Japan despite it being an island country) and grabbed some lunch to eat at an overlook point. This turned out to be a slightly harrowing experience because the beach is constantly stalked by low-flying falcons that target unwary picnickers and then literally bodyslam them to make them drop their food, then eat their stolen goods off the pavement. (Ethan was the unlucky first-hand discoverer of this...) After that we took the train to Yokohama and walked around the harborfront for a bit before getting dinner in Chinatown and returning to Tokyo.
The next day we went the furthest afield, heading southwest to Hakone, a volcanic area close to Mt. Fuji. This was the day with the most questionable weather by far - which was not bad per se, but thick clouds drifted overhead around the tops of the mountains and a strong wind was present on the ridges. Unfortunately, the winds meant that the gondola that connected most of the highlights in the area was out of service. In addition the hiking trails were also closed because of concerns about volcanic gases, and so after reaching the start of the gondola route we were a bit at a loss for what to do. We walked down the road for a ways but the shoulder quickly vanished in some construction. But we noticed a bus stop that the route map suggested would represent a reasonable substitute for the gondola and decided to take that instead. We stopped at a fumarole area high up on the mountain, then got on the bus again to continue on to a lake down in the valley. From there we took a ferry to the far shore of the lake (where we took a brief hike to a viewpoint where the clouds cleared for just long enough for some fleeting and hazy views of Mt. Fuji). From there another bus connected back to the train that returned to Tokyo.
On Sunday we headed west, heading up into a narrow valley. From there we connected to a bus, then a funicular, to reach the ridge in the only real hike of the weekend, a roughly 6-mile roundtrip to Mt. Otake, which is apparently billed as the highest mountain in the Tokyo metropolitian district (at 1100 meters - nothing spectacular here). The trail passed a shrine where people come to bless their dogs along with some forest streams and narrow, steep, and rocky stretches, ending up on a forested peak with a panoramic (albeit once again hazy) view towards Fuji to the west. We returned via an even narrower path which probably traumatized poor Ethan for life, but we made it back to the funicular station in time before it closed and returned to Tokyo for one last quick dinner and dessert before my early departure the next morning.
All in all, quite a nice visit! It was short (the briefest of all my Japan trips, by far) but packed with activity, and it was nice to be able to simultaneously experience Japan's hectic and zany urban side as well as the greener and quieter spots out in the mountains. Let's hope it doesn't take another five years for me to make it back this time!
|Wednesday, April 12th, 2017|
|Work business and weekend travels
Things have been ramping up at work - at first slowly, although recently much more rapidly. This is thanks largely to a couple of major proposal deadlines that inconveniently landed on the same day: the Hubble Space Telescope (nearly impossible to get time on but always worth a shot) and the Liverpool Telescope (my new institution's small but capable robotic telescope in the Canary Islands.) Another contributing factor was a couple of (useless) introductory faculty training workshops which of course had to be scheduled 1 and 2 days before said deadline, plus a community outreach event last Wednesday evening. After having been accustomed to a slightly more relaxed work environment where I was able to attend paper discussions and things (not to mention actually have evenings free) being thrown back into a 14-hour-day work situation was a bit frustrating, but I got done everything I needed to on time.
And thankfully I'm now over that hurdle, and about to pass into a month or so that will be busy in a more familiar and pleasant way - travel to fun places! I'm actually on my way to Tokyo right now to visit a furry friend over the holiday weekend, and the week after I'll be heading over to the Bay Area for what is nominally a research visit, but one that will permit substantial time visiting my old friends.
Actually, though, I've been at the travel-to-friends things for a few weeks already, since despite the latest surge of work I've at least managed to keep my weekends free. Two weekends ago (I've been slow in updating!) I made my way over to Sheffield
two hours east of here to hang out with a couple of furry friends I know out that way in what turned out to be a quite nice visit - for a city I'd never really heard of in England's interior my expectations were low, but the city center area was surprisingly pleasant and the weather was equally cooperative, with clear skies heralding the arrival of spring. Though that weather was just a preview of the following weekend, when I hopped on over to Berlin
to visit my long-term furry-friend out there. Temperatures surpassed 20 (almost 70 F) and were nearly ideal for a walk in the park - so that's what we did, visiting the monuments of Potsdam on Saturday and the Berlin zoo on Sunday. And then finally this past weekend (with the crush of proposals finished) I spent the weekend in Manchester
visiting both my grad-school friend and some local furries.
So that's all great, and I'm happy to be have had friends in so many places and the opportunities to visit them. At the same time, this is in part a reflection of not
having friends any closer to where I live, and having to travel hours to see friends once a month or less can be frustrating in some ways. Life has taken a very strange series of turns over the past 2 years and I'm still trying to understand the consequences. Nevertheless, it is what it is, and objectively things are well, with a lot to look forward to over the next month and next year. So, onward!
|Tuesday, March 21st, 2017|
I like skiing. It's beautiful, active, and lots of fun. I went to Lake Tahoe several times per year during graduate school. When I moved to Pasadena and got my own car I had great plans to head to the Sierras anytime the snow fell, but four years of drought ensued instead. When I moved to Europe I had hopes of skiing the Alps or at least Norway, but those crashed and burned against the reality of the job interview season last year.
This year I was determined not to let my moving distractions excuse a similar fate, and after a couple weeks of unsuccessfully trying to find a friend to accompany me I just decided "eff it" and booked some tickets to go alone. Fortunately the mountains aren't that far: the local airport was offering direct flights to Geneva for GBP 20 each way, and from there it was less than two hours by shuttle to Chamonix, a legendary ski town in the French Alps.
I arrived late Friday night (I'm rationing my vacation time and was trying to squeeze the trip into a single weekend) and went to bed soon after. Saturday I woke up bright and enthusiastic to see the vast mountains all around me and ski in continental Europe for the first time. Instead I woke to thick clouds and fog - and as I got my equipment on and walked to the lift it began to rain.
Rain! But OK, the town was at a mere 1000 meters elevation and it was March so it wasn't impossible. The actual skiing was mostly up at the top of the gondola, another 600 meters up or so. But unfortunately, the elevation wasn't enough: the precipitation was still an awful "wintry mix" that seeped into into every crevice of my clothing that wasn't 100% waterproof over the course of the morning. I took an extended lunch break in the hope of seeing some improvement, but in fact it only got worse: full, heavy rain, quickly soaking my clothes completely. Combined with the fog that made seeing any bumps impossible the whole day was miserable and I abandoned the mountain by 1:00 in the afternoon.
After sitting in the hotel for most of the rest of the day being a bit grumpy of the wasted day of vacation, I went to sleep and hoped for improvement. Fortunately it came: the clouds parted in the morning and the next two days offered brilliant sunshine and warmth. Of course, the snow had been soaked into slush and (combined with 10+ degree C temperatures) conditions were as spring-like as they come, but that's manageable - especially after my expectations were set so low by the first day.
And aside from that, Chamonix is a stunning place, almost to the point of being surreal. The terrain is incredible: the bottom of the valley (at 1000m = 3000') sits immediately below the highest mountain in Europe (Mont Blanc at 4800m = 15800'). That's almost 13000 feet of elevation relief right in front of you, and the towering heights of the peaks from town seem like something out of a fantasyscape. The town itself... well, it's a world-famous ski town (it hosted the first ever winter Olympics, apparently), with the usual prices to match. Fortunately both the flights and the ski lift pass came in under what I had budgeted so I didn't feel too guilty about shelling out for dinner every day.
Still, sticking to my one-day-off-work strategy, on Tuesday morning early I was on the shuttle back to Geneva airport and from there back to Liverpool, making it into work in time for lunch. Win! With other plans for my next few weekends (and conditions in the mountains feeling more like May than March anyway) this'll surely be my last ski trip in Europe for the season, but I'm glad I took the chance when I did. And I'll definitely be back next year.
|Sunday, March 12th, 2017|
|Travels Resume: Nordic Fuzzcon 2017
After the essentially unending travel of September through January I decided to take a one-month break from travels in February in order to get my bearings and settle into the new job and new environment. That was nice, in a way. Still, my hyper-internationalist lifestyle chafes at being grounded, and so with March upon us, it's time to pick up where I left off and go back to seeing the world!
The first trip is something I'd actually planned long long ago, even before the ink was dry on the decision to move out here in the first place: this weekend was Nordic Fuzzcon in Stockholm, an event that has become a near must-attend for me. I didn't allot too much time for the con: arriving late Thursday night and departing Sunday afternoon (as to only miss one day of work). Still, this has definitely become the European con that I'm the best socially connected at and it's also one of the best mid-size cons out there, so I was super excited to make the journey and make use of what time I did have.
Unfortunately, I made a spectacular error while packing: I forgot to bring Cami's feetpaws! How I screwed this up I'm not sure: the proximate cause had to do with the fact that I had transferred all of the fursuit components out of the old Action Packer I returned with from FC with to the closet in my new apartment except for
the feetpaws (and underclothes), which I'd left in the Action Packer. I used a different suitcase for NFC, and never thought to open the Action Packer even after mentally noticing that the new suitcase was quite unusually light and underfull after "finishing" packing. (Admittedly, I was in a bit of a rush.) I did realize my error on the train halfway to the airport, but by then it was too late and I had to proceed onwards.
As a result I didn't get to suit much: there was no way that I was going to go around in sneakers, and while one of my friends at the con was generously willing to loan me his paws (when not in use for when I needed them), my feet are very long and so the fit was marginal. Plus of course negotiating the pickup and return of feetpaws every single time I might want to consider fursuiting was naturally bound to be a hassle.
But there's always a silver lining: partially as a result of this, this became the con where I was finally able to "pay it forward" by sharing the fursuit love with a new generation! A few weeks prior I had convinced another, much younger fur I'd met up with a few times in Denmark last year to come to the con for a day even though he'd never been to a furcon before and didn't know anyone. (He's a college student from the US doing a study-abroad program in Viborg.) Prior to the con he'd already raised the suggestion of whether he might be able to put Cami on for a bit to try out fursuiting - which I of course said was fine! Still, in the past I've been a little bit guarded about Cami's public appearances, just because the character is as much about personality as about the costume itself. In any case, few others are thin enough to fit: so until now, Cami has never seen the public eye with a performer or than me.
Anyway, after my first outing around the con where I felt myself
overly subdued since I was trying to be gentle on the borrowed feetpaws, I realized that if Cami was going to get any real run-around time this time at all, it might actually be better for someone other than me to do it anyway! And I decided that might actually be pretty awesome, so when my friend dropped by, I happily outfitted him in the suit and the borrowed paws (which fit him perfectly) and encouraged him to run wild downstairs - which he certainly did, bouncing around in character and having an all-around great time for what was probably an hour plus. It turned out to be a fun experience even for me, as I had a chance to have a sense of what Cami looks like in real space from the outside, not to mention that special furry warmth of helping to spread the good fursuit vibes to a newcomer. And needless to say my friend had a great time, coming away totally sold on the experience.
Anyway, other than that it was mostly the usual: hanging out, food, chat, beer, fun and friends - all in moderation, and despite the inauspicious beginning I came away in a great mood, looking forward to the future.
|Monday, February 27th, 2017|
Well, it's been just under a month since the move, and I haven't written anything here for a couple weeks, so I guess it's time to check in.
I remain rather non-plussed with the apartment, and feel it's quite likely that I'll be moving come the summer. I've been sniffing out whether I should actually buy a place: prices are definitely afforable and it seems that most properties around campus that are in the "nice" category are treated as sale options and not rentals, so this may be a practical way to secure something I'm genuinely happy and comfortable with, as opposed to my current place with its various flaws (and it might be nice to actually put my savings to use.) I have some time to think about that, at least.
In the meantime - I have, at least, been making use of the apartment in one significant way which I never did in the past couple places I lived, which is to actually use the kitchen for cooking something more sophisticated than pasta, as a sort of trial-run (or maybe role-play, haha) of the mythical "adult life" that in theory I should be learning about at the age of 34. I have managed to make at least 4 different things from recipe books and essentially from scratch: they all turned out OK, so maybe this will actually become a regular thing (at minimum, I'll be slightly less useless as a guest/host going forward!)
Work's going alright - I continue along at a relatively leisurely-feeling pace, although somehow that still equates to getting in at 9 AM and leaving at 7 PM. This relatively disciplined owes itself in part to only having mobile-broadband internet at home (and therefore no reason to stay up super late), although to some extent it may reflect that I have finally chosen to exercise some long-term discipline over my sleeping habits and make it in at a reasonable hour every morning in an attempt to maintain a sense of professionalism now that I am a relatively high-ranking member of my workplace. (I've also been dressing "professionally", or at least at the level which I do at major conferences.)
The biggest change from the past, and something I'm still grappling with a bit, is the fact that I now have a PhD student. This is great, and a good stroke of luck on my part since it means I can already start building a "research group" and multiply the amount of effort going to my projects. On the other hand it is stressful in a way: this person's career is very directly under my control right now, in numerous ways: in being given a proper set of tasks to work on, in gaining the appropriate skill set, in serving as a good example, and so on. And this is all new to me! So far I've been very hands-off in my approach, tasking the student with learning the literature and some key software packages but not demanding frequent progress updates or meetings. As the time goes by I'll have to escalate that since student's PhD terms in the UK are strictly capped at 3.5 years. The good news, at least, is that the student seems quite competent and self-motivated and is now on the verge of having the toolset ready to do actual research.
As for outside the ivory tower: there isn't a tremendous new to report, at least by the previous standards of this journal over the past year when I was in a different city almost every single week. I have, in fact, gone a full calendar month without travelling at all, something that I don't think has happened since July 2015.
I have been getting out a bit, but not much: last weekend and the week before I attended a couple of local furmeets. The furry meetup scene in the UK is particularly active and quite standardized: every major city has a monthly meet, almost always starting at noon and going until roughly dinnertime, usually somewhere serving alcohol. I know only a few furries here but figured this would be as good a way as any to meet some and hopefully make some friends, and so plunged into a couple meets essentially cold. I had a couple of very different experiences: at the Manchester meet (a fairly large event held in a bar) I was almost immediately spotted by a couple of furs at a table and invited over and I chatted with them for the rest of the time, getting along reasonably well although both of them were 10 years younger with me - so I'm not sure if we're bound to be lifelong friends but have stayed in touch, mostly on their account!
The following week I went to the Liverpool meet here in town and had a different, significantly more negative experience: despite a smaller format which should have made socializing easier (a group of ~10 at a single table) I was mostly ignored; after finally taking the initiative to strike up a conversation with someone that person quickly left early for some other engagement. Eventually I managed to talk a little with the others but it's not clear that we have a tremendous amount in common, the local crowd is very blue-collar and didn't seem very inquisitive or worldly in the way that I've become used to in furry circles dominated by con-travelers and science/technology-career types that I usually frequent. And then
things managed to get even more awkward when I unwittingly waded into some local furry drama: a fur I had met online and who told me about the meet's existence same towards the end to say hi to me, and was prominently greeted by scowls from everyone else and told that he was indefinitely banned and had to leave immediately. He protested but eventually stormed off while I kept my head down. Apparently he had been abusive in the past to others, although it's hard to tell how much of this was justifiable rule-enforcement and how much was cliquish behavior towards a social outcast. Anyway, this has left me with some hesitation about how exactly to approach the furry scene here. Oh well. (But the Manchester scene 1 hour away still seems very lively and positive.)
Aside from those, there appear to be furmeets within a 2-hour train ride effectively every single weekend of the year, so there'll always be something going on if I feel like getting fuzzy (potentially literally, since most of them allow fursuiting). Still, of course, despite my own "travel pause", my wanderlust is ever-present, and I've been pondering the options for the rest of the year. This has been a bit frustrating, since I am in a rather bad location for easy travel: Manchester's links to North America in particular are surprisingly poor (the United Dulles route seems to have ended earlier this year, although a San Francisco route on Virgin Atlantic is starting in April), costing sometimes twice as much and taking hour longer than trips out of Copenhagen. The airport is also not close and the experience inside poor, and my frequent-flyer benefits count for almost nothing given the mixture of airlines that operate here. But I'll manage. There are, at least, nonstops to all of the Nordic capitals and extremely cheap nonstops to the Alps, so there'll be plenty of good things to do over in this half of the world.
Until next time!
|Monday, February 13th, 2017|
Life is gradually approaching a new sort of normalcy as the move recedes into the past and I take additional steps to set up my new life and new job. There's still a long way to go - there's no doubt about that - but routines are being established, conventions are being learned. After five months of having no permanent housing, spent on near-perpetual travel as I counted down the weeks before yet another international move, it's been a bit of a relief to be in only one place with no scheduled work travel and many years ahead of me in my career. Still- at the same time, the sense of having to build up a new life from square one is unmistakable.
My apartment doesn't feel quite as alien as it used to be, although getting set up remains a slow process carried out entirely on foot via repeated walks to the city center. I have at least - following three separate retrieval trips by rail - managed to bring over everything I brought from Copenhagen and had stored in Manchester, and I have a minimal set of kitchen items and some additional lighting. I'll need a few more little things and some large furniture items, but everything now works. And the bright outdoor lights have bothered me somewhat less than I'd worried initially: the main drawback mainly being that if I happen to wake up before sunrise it takes me longer than I might prefer to actually be aware of that. Of course, once the northern summer comes, that'll be a problem (outdoor lighting or no)! I'll have to look into curtains eventually, which won't be trivial given the size of the windows.
At work, things are off to a relatively leisurely start. I'm not teaching until autumn, and my first grant proposal and the more recent telescope deadline were due the day I arrived, so in their wake there's been almost nothing in the way of fixed responsibilities. Which is kind of nice: I've had evenings free (although only tethered internet at home) and a lot less of the nagging guilt that "I should be doing something" that follows me along for most of the year.
The contrast in my immediate working environment from where I worked before is certainly distinct: in Copenhagen I was seated in a big open-air common office with about six other postdocs and I was also right next to the front door, so the atmosphere was always very lively and people were always coming and going. Now I have my own office, of course, and it's on a floor that is mostly occupied by the offices of the department of veterinary pathology (it's just me and two other professors from astronomy). Furthermore the layout of the place is such that my office is set back from the hallway by a large interaction room, so I don't see anyone else unless they're specifically coming looking for me, or at outside events (of which there aren't too many, but I at least try to attend the informal staff lunches).
The department seems friendly enough, at least, although I remain largely in a watch-and-wait mode as I try to suss out the actual relationships between the various faculty and their expectations for me, in terms of social interactions and everything else. I'm well aware that, although I've now taken a major step up on the academic heirarchy, within my respective rank I'm now at the absolute bottom - and within the department I'm very much the new kid on the block, with minimal or no understanding of department conventions or other local knowledge. Fortunately the fly-on-the-wall approach comes pretty much naturally to me; the challenge will be to break out of it when the time comes.
In any case - when it comes to pursuing social interaction beyond working hours (and department-sponsored dinners and things), I decided to take a different approach than my last couple of moves and dive right into the furry social scene without hesitation. Right away I joined a bunch of Telegram groups and I headed over to the Manchester furmeet last weekend, despite knowing no one there in advance. The UK fur scene holds quite bit of promise: one can ride a train for two hours to a large-scale public furmeet on essentially any given Saturday of any month, providing the opportunity (in principile) to get toasted with a group of 30 random furries in a bar 52 weeks a year. Now, admittedly, my goal would not be so much that
in the short term as it would be to meet more locals and make some longer-term friends. We'll see how that goes: the crowds at these things appear to trend kind of young, and I suspect any truly lasting
friendships I make out here will need to be with people at least reasonably close to my own age (and something like a comparable level of educational attainment). In any event my first meet went reasonable well (it didn't take too long to end up chatting with a group) and I'm hoping to go from there.
Oh, and I'm in a new country! That's been a relatively easy adjustment, fortunately. The first week certainly was a bit odd: Denmark (where I did not speak the language) had come to feel somewhat like home, while the UK (where I did) very much did not, which at times could be kind of disorienting. That contrast has lessened as I figure out how things work around here. Certainly one thing I'm appreciating is that, after having my expectations for how much things cost set by living in central Copenhagen, buying things over here often feels like I'm getting away with an unreasonable bargain.
OK, that covers most of the bases for now. More next time!
|Saturday, February 4th, 2017|
So I'm in Liverpool now, moved into a new apartment and set up at work as I take the first steps into this new life.
I touched down in Manchester on Tuesday evening. I'd arrived too late in the day to actually pick up the keys to the new apartment, so I took a taxi over to the Manchester residence of the same friends who I stayed with over there during my last couple visits (and who had been storing some of my extra belongings.) The actual move-in was deferred until the next day (Wednesday): I woke up early in the morning and headed over to the rental agency to sign the contract and pick up the keys.
As I noted before, finding an apartment was a bit of a rushed process that ended up with me getting my second choice. The main attractions of the place were: a monthly rent well under my stated price point, a very short commute to work (5 minutes' walk), and a newly renovated interior with high ceilings and lots of windows and light.
Of course usually the drawbacks are not so obvious in a quick viewing, and certainly that was the case here. For one: the bedroom is right by the front door of the apartment building, which means that the large windows (and their translucent blinds) also transmit the bright security lights from outside, so it is never truly dark. The comings and goings of the other tenants cause a lot of noise from the door opening and closing. Then, strategically positioned just behind a wall on the other side of the room is the hot water heater with its loud fan. So: silence and darkness are hard to come by. I also wonder about crime risk a little bit: the building is stuck in a bit of an alleyway and my unit is right on the ground floor. I'll get a better sense of this in the coming days.
In any case, I'm not stuck here for long: the contract is for six months, and towards the end of that when I have a better sense of the Liverpool area and a notion of how likely I am to stay here long-term, I can move into a nicer unit or even buy property, which I can probably afford without much difficulty in this area (possibly this would open up some nicer options that aren't available on the rental market, too.)
In the meantime, I need to buy things for what space I have! The apartment is almost entirely empty: I brought only a single suitcase with me on Wednesday and have been living out of that since then. When I finish the retrieval process from Manchester that will help a little, but nearly everything else needs to be re-purchased locally.
Without a car I'm limited to what I can carry each time I go shopping. Because I live so close to the shopping district that's not necessarily a huge problem. Nevertheless, this process has been gradual at best. I really don't like buying things: I can never decide what to get among multiple options, and I often end up indecisely leaving without anything. My limited carrying capacity only exacerbates this because on a given trip I have to decide which set of things I would be buying then, and which I'd have to get back for.
So it's going to be a while before it really feels like a proper home here. But I hope not too much longer!
|Tuesday, January 31st, 2017|
|Farvel til Danmark
My time in Copenhagen is finally at its end: in the afternoon I head to the airport trundling the same suitcases that I moved here with that summer carrying all of my remaining possessions, and head off to another country once again.
If it feels like I've hardly even got here, that's probably because in a sense I have. I was in Berkeley for seven years and Pasadena for almost four. My stay in Denmark lasted just nineteen months from beginning to end, and an significant fraction of that (at least one third) was spent traveling somewhere else. I learned what was around my local part of Copenhagen and (towards the very end) was finally well on my way to establishing a friend group here - still, I never truly felt that it was a permannt home, and never learned the language or even had a chance to leave the Copenhagen metro area.
Anyway, partly as a result of this, my good-bye week has been rather anti-climactic compared to the last couple times I moved out of an area. I did go to go out for dinner and a few drinks with a few of my co-workers on Friday, and I saw some of the local furry crowd on Saturday (although it was a birthday event for someone else, and not really about me!) And packing has indeed been mostly trivial: I own only a little bit more than the two suitcases full of stuff I originally came here with, and furthermore I packed up a good fraction of it back in September and left it in storage in my office.
This move marks another transition, too: it's my last day as a post-doc. Tomorrow I finally become a faculty member, taking up a permanent contract in a move that has for much of the past five years always been the most prominent end-goal. That's of course a big success, but as always there are tradeoffs - including less freedom with my personal time and a more conspicuous, high-profile, high-pressure role in and outside the department. Many professors have told me that they missed their postdoc days dearly before group management, teaching, and committee work devoured their time, and I can certainly see why. The past few months in particular have been remarkably liberating, with the new job in the bag and a healthy string of 2016 first-author papers already out there and in the CV. I've travelled the world with almost no fixed responsibilities, sitting somewhere different practically every week with no immediate pressure. Still, such a life can't go on forever.
Despite my short stay, I will miss quite a lot about Denmark, or at least about Copenhagen: the sleek and functional mass transit system (among other things: buses everywhere all night long, a $3 ride to the airport within half an hour), the convenience of living in a capital city with its international services and transport links, the cheery architecture, the safe streets and near-absence of major crime, the progressive political culture, the beautiful parks and museums. Even the weather's not that bad, especially in summer. In an alternate reality I would have failed in my job search this year and put a serious effort into finding new funding to stay here permanently.
I sometimes feel a bit guilty that I didn't do more or become better integrated here, at work or otherwise: my interests and planned career trajectory took a significant turn in the year leading up to my move here, such that - ironically - I ended up collaborating with my Danish colleagues more before I actually moved here than I did while living here, and conversely I now collaborate more with the Caltech group much more than I did for much of the time when I live in Pasadena. Ah well. No sense having regrets about it: it's time to look forward, and not backwards.
|Tuesday, January 24th, 2017|
|Liverpool Housing Search
My long month of (largely-holiday) travel throughout the US wrapped up after FC, and Monday night following the con I took the long flight back across the Atlantic to Copenhagen, touching down on Tuesday evening. That was the end of my winter vacation, but hardly the end of my travels, since there's one more very large item on the itinerary: finally executing my move to the UK to take up the new position in Liverpool.
The official start date is February 1st, but there was a clear need to make my way out there a little before that: it would take some time to secure housing, and I also wanted to drop by the department to get some other things set up. It also is going to take more than one trip to port all of my belongings over anyway. So I planned a one-week "advance visit" shortly before the real move at the end of the month - just long enough to exchange my things and get some rest. The imminent move date pushed this trip right up against my return from FC - and as a result, less than 24 hours after returning to Copenhagen after my long absence, I was on a plane again to head over to the UK.
This visit was made a lot easier by the fact that one of my old graduate school friends (from Berkeley) now lives in Manchester, not too far from the airport. While not exactly within easy commuting distance of Liverpool (90 minutes or so), this provided a convenient location to temporarily store the things I was moving over to the UK plus a place to stay on the days I didn't need to be in Liverpool all day (which is to say all days except Thursday through Saturday, when I was most actively looking for housing.)
Looking for a place to live is a difficult process and has been the source of quite a bit of apprehension for me at various times in my life, including the present one. With AAS, FC, and innumerable other distractions lately I hadn't done any advance planning. Fortunately, the process turned out to be not too difficult this time around: there are a couple of pretty sophisticated mapping-based commercial websites in the UK that handle apartment listings, by default most places are pre-furnished, and the cost side of the equation was almost not an issue at all. Living in a succession of expensive cities has solidified the expectation in my mind that living alone in a decent apartment anywhere outside a remote suburb will cost $1000 in monthly rent as an absolute minimum, with $1500 being much more realistic. While the comparison is a bit distorted by the exchange rate at the moment, I was pleased to find out that in Liverpool that range can secure just about anything on the market, anywhere in the city, even for two-bedroom places. So it was pretty clear that finding something acceptable would not be difficult.
The biggest challenge was in securing appointments: since I had showed up with no advance planning had only 3 business days available to me, I was trying to make appointments on the fly as soon as possible, and although my hope was to start looking at places effectively immediately on Thursday, in general I was only able to arrange viewings for Friday or Saturday (or was only given vague "we'll call you back" promises.) So the start was slow.
In a bit of a repeat of my experience when I moved down to Pasadena, I had one near "miss". The second apartment I viewed on Friday was fantastic: well within the price range, two bedrooms, less than 5 minutes' walk from work and from downtown, and on a cornder of the building with lots of windows and light. Unfortunately, I hesitated to make any committment until I'd seen a couple other places and (of course) somebody else wanted it. On Saturday I decided not to repeat that mistake: I saw a place that was almost as good (similar location, only 1br but way under my price point, great kitchen and windows). Not wanting to be stuck returning to Copenhagen without a place secured should the same thing recur, I jumped on it immediately and put in an application to rent. It is apparently a slow process to be "approved" for a rental by renting agencies in the UK and I may not have that confirmed for a few more days, but claws-crossed I should have a space secured just in time for my real move a week from today. It is unfortunately just 1 bedroom, so it won't be quite as ideal a friend-hosting platform as I'd been hoping - but it's close to all the hotels, and is only a 6-month contract: when summer rolls around I can look into finding something a little nicer and more permanent if I choose.
There were a few other things to take care of as well. I acquired my residence permit, set up a banking account, and dropped by the department on both Friday and Monday for much of the day. I met with my PhD student for the first time in person since she began her project and got the keys to my new office, and also had a couple of other research chats with others in the department.
In the course of my apartment-searching I also got to see somewhat more of the city than before, finding out that there is a "trendy" district with a lot of cool bars and restaurants and shops only about five minutes from where I expect to be living. So at least for the moment I'm feeling pretty good about the move!
With that largely taken care of on by Saturday, I was free to relax a bit on Sunday, and my Manchester hosts and I took the train out to the countryside to go for a walk (one could hardly call it a hike) around the area. Despite some early light snow and near-freezing temperatures it was not a bad day to be outside and the bucolic farms and lakes (while not exactly on the same tier as the mountains I grew up hiking) were a nice backdrop, making for a calming experience after a busy weekend.
I flew back to Copenhagen today, the mission (hopefully) accomplished. I'll be here until Tuesday - wrapping up life as a postdoc and concluding my time in Denmark.
|Monday, January 16th, 2017|
|Further Confusion 2017
The final stop of what has started to feel like a neverending trip back to the US was this week was in San Jose, for yet another iteration of Further Confusion, my first and most frequent fur con (every year since 2005! That's 13 straight FC's!)
Despite all the familiarity the con felt quite a bit different from previous iterations. For one, it felt much less crowded and "happening": it remains to be seen whether this was due to an expected attendance drop (from competition with nearby and ultra-trendy BLFC) or was a more psychological impact of having moved to the new wing of the convention center more remote from the hotels. In either case this did have its pluses: elevator lines and similar delays were rare and the new space was very nice, with an expansive lounge area filled with natural light instead of the enclosed "warehouse" feel of last year's space. Nevertheless the con did feel much less bustling, especially in comparison to the jam-packed MFF a month previously.
With only a few exceptions, most of the people I knew were still there, at least, and there were even quite a few "new" folks who hadn't been in years who showed up for this year's iteration. This was great although it posed a challenge as well, since a number of them were there in a large part because I was, and I felt super-responsible for trying to make sure they had a good time... which proved to be a challenge at times since as usual after 4 PM rolled around I was pulled in a dozen different directions by social commitments to several different, largely non-intersecting social groups. For the same reason I also ended up fursuiting quite a bit less than I would have wanted: basically only once a day for a couple hours. There were also some strokes of bad luck - one close friend had to cancel last-minute after having trouble with visa paperwork, and a power outage crippled the elevators the first evening and made check-in an ordeal. (At least they gave us a discount!) And my computer did not get along well with the hotel wireless and the need to send a couple critical work e-mails caused more stress than I would like. Still, all in all it was a great experience in a friendly space and I had a good time with old (and some new) friends.
With the con over, I'm now waiting to board a late flight back to Europe, the nearly four-week-long US trip finally at its end. With that, the new job is about to suddenly get very real: in just a couple days I'll be in the UK to find housing, banking, communications and all the other accompaniments of a major international move, all while laying down the foundations of a new job. I've hardly prepared at all and feel only marginally ready. We'll see how it goes...
|Thursday, January 12th, 2017|
The next stop in the winter tour of America was back to my old digs in Berkeley. I've visited a number of times since leaving, and each time it's been a bit weird. Some things are the same, but many are not, and it can be a bit disorienting. Some of my graduate school friends are still around (I stayed with them), but have a toddler now. Half the restaurants and shops I remember are still there and exactly as I remember, the other half are gone and replaced with new, unfamiliar installations. The astronomy department is also different: all of the students and postdocs I interacted with during my time there are gone (save a handful). The faculty are largely still there, of course, but there are changes afoot there too.
The most prominent difference, as usual, is my PhD advisor. Since I've had basically zero scientific interaction with him over the past several years I almost didn't bother to note that I was in town, but I did e-mail him Monday and he replied to say that he could only meet off campus and only the very next morning, providing minimal time to plan. He then didn't set a time until I was already on my way to campus and set a time and then changed it, causing me quite a bit of annoyance. We did eventually meet at the conversation was useful, but it has become clear beyond all doubt that there is going to be zero useful research collaboration between us again; he is not even doing astronomy anymore and (despite having sold his software company and being back as a professor) does not seem interested in getting back into the same scientific programs that interest me. Oh well: life moves on. On the other hand another professor on campus (who I taught for but never really worked with formally) was super enthused to meet and set up a big group meeting largely in my "honor", and he occasionally takes data for me when he has observing runs, so... at least there's something.
Research-wise, the main point of this visit was to check up on the undergraduate student who had become the primary beneficiary of my exile overseas. In 2015 I was awarded a $200,000 NASA grant to analyze some Spitzer data - but I only found this out after I had signed the paperwork to move overseas and the money could be spent in the US only. My hope in the 2016 job cycle was that I would get a US job and then be able to hire people on that money, but as I have repeatededly documented here the 2016 job search was a complete disaster on the domestic front and that simply wasn't possible. Instead I divvied up the money among a bunch of US co-investigators, with a big chunk going to a postdoc collaborator in Berkeley who used the money to hire a student to work on the project. I spent most of yesterday meeting with that student and the postdoc to make sure they were up to speed on things. It went reasonably well: hopefully they'll make real progress by the end of the year (but not enough to scoop my own work, obviously :P)
It was a short visit: only two days, the amount of time in between my Utah ski trip and Further Confusion (which I arrived at a few hours ago). It was a working visit, but between all the meetings and code tutorials, and with my evenings largely occupied with socializing with my friends, all non-critical work has generally been piling up, putting me into a bit of a flustered state in advance of FC, and I'm probably going to spend at least some of the con huddled to one side trying to at least keep up with e-mail. Oh well. I am determined to have fun here nevertheless!