Saturday, June 30, 2007

A meme

Twice tagged me with a simple meme, so I might be able to produce a readable post while listening to five children playing in the garden.

  • I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.
  • Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
  • Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Random Facts

  1. I utterly dislike most of a traditional housewife's chores: cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc. I am also mildly to very bad at each of these activities. However, I really enjoy grocery shopping. I like it so much that my children think it's fun and are always eager to come with me - they are quiet and helpful, which is quite unlike they usual behaviour.
  2. I speak four languages fluently, and can read without big problems easy texts (say, mistery novels) in two or three more.
  3. As a mathematician, I am a very slow learner; as a consequence, there is a lot of classical, standard stuff that I would like to know and don't.
  4. I don't like music very much. I don't mind it, and I even have gotten used to some of it, but it remains a very minor pleasure for me. I don't dance, if I can at all avoid it.
  5. I used to be a serious soccer fan: from age 12 to 18 I had a yearly ticket for the team of my home town.
  6. I do not use computer programming in my work, and I never did. I tried once for a few months, and found it depressingly difficult.
  7. I often read while getting dressed, eating, and brushing my teeth. And in most other "spare" moments.
  8. I cut my children's hair myself.
I read a number of blogs by people who are too busy to write often. Therefore I'll tag IP at Irrational Point Soapbox,

Last week vs next week

I spent last week visiting WS's family. This involved doing absolutely no work, having no internet connection, and enduring a substantial amount of bad weather. On the other hand, I really like my mother in law, and it ended up being a very pleasant, relaxing vacation week. I am always a bit sad that we are so far away, so that every visit has to be carefully planned and ends up being quite a financial investment.

Still, I do appreciate being back to summer and wireless ADSL. The plan is as follows: today, grocery shopping and washing machine use (four so far); tomorrow, day at the beach, from monday, summer camp and back to work. I always did my best work in the summer, so I have big hopes for the next four weeks.

In the moment, there are five children shouting on my balcony. They have just eaten cherries and watermelon, and we may soon all go to a nearby playground. I do love summer.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The road not taken

At this conference, I have had occasion to talk to some of the applicants I didn't accept for our postdoc position one month ago. They all seem to be excellent, and my feeling that I could have hired any, or all, of them and made a very good choice was even stronger. Luckily, but not surprisingly, they all have other offers.
Plus, I talked with a couple of more senior guys, basically people my age and scientific level, who don't yet have a position and are slowly contemplating the possibility that they might never get one. It seems so sad, and so unfair. These people aren't particularly good, but neither am I. I was always very career conscious (as opposed to "eventually I'll find something") so maybe I did do a bit more than them. But to stand next to them, and know that I'm full professor, and they hope to find another position next year... academiacan be really unjust. I wonder how the other full professors deal with this.

Old age strikes hard and unexpectedly

Yesterday morning I pulled a muscle. While turning in the bed. I was handicapped the whole day, unable to deal with children, carry my laptop, and look leftwards. I had trouble swallowing and lifting any weight.
Today it's better, but not ok. I just hope this is not old age, otherwise I'll start sharing Leopardi's viewpoint. Except of course he never was as old as I am now.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Today I picked up C#1 who had been visiting my parents. This involved a large number of hours on the train, with a shining sun and no air conditioning. I found some time to talk mathematics to S#3, who just needs to open his eyes, notice that his thesis is finished, and write it up. Hopefully this will happen soon.

I also spent some time equarreling (quarreling via email) with a number of colleagues, that are finding the most incredible excuses why they never can take into account what I say. I find that saying "I hadn't heard of that" from a recipient of an email which comes with a date and an hour and has been cc's to about 20 other people is ridiculous. I don't know if they will ever take me seriously. But I know that I can at least force them to listen to me, and I definitely will. Maybe if I am harassing enough, they'll do what I ask in the hope that I shut up.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The biggest change

The theme chosen for this is Transitions.

This made me think. What was the biggest change in my life? Several natural choices are available: maternity, marriage, graduation... I first thought of discussing how it was to get tenure, something that was more important to me than marriage and children. Or maybe my first research result? My first paper on a toplevel journal? I finally concluded that no, it was none of the above.

The biggest change in my life was starting university. In particular, I remember the sunny morning when I found out I had been admitted.

Starting university in a top-level college meant that I overnight stopped being weird and became normal. I felt welcomed in a community which accepted me as I was, and didn't demand of me things that I couldn't or wouldn't do. Suddenly the fact that I don't understand much of fashion, or am clumsy in my movements, or have a very loud voice didn't count anymore. The shape of my nose and the size of my clothes stopped having any importance. What counted was my ability and willingness to work very hard, learn a lot, and eventually give my own contribution. I started respecting myself more.

The other key fact is that they paid me to do it. A few weeks after that sunny morning, I stopped being financially dependent on my parents: my grant included room and board, and some pocket money. Science has kept me ever since. Over the years, money was invested in me by a number of funding agencies, in my country and abroad: besides being useful in the obvious way, the money also helped me gain my parents' respect.

Not so long before starting university, I had seen the movie "Yentl" (yes, I'm old). As I stood there, contemplating my name in the list of the admitted, a song* from that movie resonated inside me: "There are moments you remember all your life. This is one of those moments".

*In the movie, the song celebrates the admission of a young woman (dressed as a man) to a male only school. It took me a long time to realize that it was appropriate in more than one way.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Running late

I got to stay in the office late since I'm doing family work - i.e., booking the travel for a forthcoming trip. Now I got a desperate phone call: we just have one liter of milk left! For the whole family!

I think when I was living with my parents, even as a child, I never saw a milk carton larger than half a liter. most of the time, there was no milk at home. I would make some deep remarks but if I do the Last Food Store will close.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Book writing

I have now started working on a project I have considered for a long time: a reference book. I'm not doing this alone, but even the little bit that I have to do myself feels like very hard work.

First of all, it is in some sense as hard as writing a research paper; many theorems are not proven in the literature, or they are proven but the proof is too technical and you start looking for easier proofs, or they are stated as "obvious" but turn out surprisingly difficult to write down in detail.

Plus, there's the difficult choice of how much to include; you cannot produce a book that no one will have time to read. In the moment we are trying to achieve a compromise, carefully labeling the material to distinguish core stuff from technical details, included only so that advanced users can find the necessary references.

Finally, you have to find meaningful examples and exercises. When you write an advanced mathematics book, it is tempting to stick to the "Definition-Lemma-Theorem-Corollary" format. But it is never a good idea. You need to give exercises, so that the reader can get hands-on experience of the new material, and examples, to connect what they have learned with what they knew before. In this particular case, it is likely that the book will be used as a reference by researchers with somewhat different backgrounds, so we need even more examples to accomodate them all.

We (here it means "me and coauthors") have decided to actually write two books: a more elementary one, which should be ready next summer, and an advanced one, to be finished in summer 2009. I do hope that we will manage, since now all the authors are either done with childbearing or not interested in it.

I am impressed by how some people either have an immense spare time or can write well fast. For instance, I am seriously considering telling my students to use The Unapologetic Mathematician as the main reference for category theory. He has written a number of beautiful, elegant posts, developing the subject in just the right degree of generality.

If I tried to do anything like that it would take me ages. And without outside help, it would never be as good. On the other hand, I am apparently the only one in my bookwriting project who is able or at least willing to take a particularly elementary approach (technically, I would call it more geometry, less algebra). So I think I should insist, however hard I find it.

Maybe I should do like See Jane Compute, and keep a sidebar with accomplished tasks. At least I would have three tasks accomplished before the deadline (namely C#1, C#2 and C#3).
I think they are unique wih this property: everything else I do, I am always late.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Patriotic metablogging

Last week I was at a conference, and I spent all the time saying hi to old friends, gossiping, and occasionally discussing maths.
So to ease myself back into blogging, I come up with a comment post to A Natural Scientist's post about juggling parental and academic duties. If you haven't read the post, you should do so now. It contains the following, excellent sentences:

I have never once heard a young man in my class say 'I don't know if I could have children and tenure.'
If I can't have what I want- intellectually satisfying work AND children- I don't want to play that game.

What can I say, but add that I was blessed enough as to be able to have it all? I did have to make some choices. I don't earn as much as I could, and neither of us is at a great university. But we can do research, and we have some time for the children. We delegate housecleaning duties and a few hours of child minding per day; the latter will diminish as the children grow older and the internet connection at home gets faster.

A lot of this is only possible because I live in a country that is, by american standards, incredibly left wing. A country with great affordable childcare, and public schools open 8 hours a day. A country where married women keep their surname, and there is no social stigma on working mothers. I use to be very unhappy about my country, which has a lot of serious problems, but it has its good sides.

So to all of you who are struggling with a two-body problem, all I can suggest is: look over the Atlantic! Better places exist! Once you're tenured, you can relax and get children, and then start working hard again.

Of course, this requires two other careful choices: that of a partner willing to share with you the burden of parenting, and that of a research area where tenure arrives early on the biological clock.

And I feel it is my duty to say, loud and proud, that I have kids. In my institution, the other female professors average .25 children each, and the male professors don't mention their offspring until said offspring starts grad school. I want students to have at least one family-friendly role model.

As a part of that, I repeated to everybody at the conference that I was going home one day early to attend C#1's end-of-schoolyear theater play. Now I just have to print out a few photos to bring along and then I'm all set as a role model.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Redshirting? No thanks!

The New York Times has an article about redshirting, which apparently means sending your child to school one year later than he/she should or could go. I found this via Twice's blog. The advantage, supposedly, is that older kids do better at school.

I sometimes wonder whether the Atlantic Ocean is more than a vaste expanse of salty water, since humans seem to behave so differently on different sides. In my country, redshirting is allowed but discouraged unless there are serious reasons for it. Sending your child to school one year earlier is allowed, easily or not depending how far away from the cutoff date (dec 31) they are born.

I did send my daughter, born january, one year earlier. She was already bored in daycare, and all her friends were going to school. She just finished second grade as very good student, and gets along very well with her schoolmates who are one year older than she is. It might help that she is also large for her age, so offers no temptation to possible physical bullies.

I was sent to school one year earlier, and I was born 11 months after cutoff. Yes, 11 months: almost a whole year. I was basically two years younger than the oldest. The decision was taken by my parents on the suggestion of the day care teachers, who noticed that I just spent a lot of time sitting in a corner and reading (technically speaking, I didn't go earlier but skipped first grade).

I was a top student all through my school years. At the end of highschool, 3 (including me) in a class of 14 finished with honors: all 3 were younger (the other two by 3 and 7 months after cutoff) and had skipped first grade. All had been sent ahead on daycare teachers' recommendation. The fourth student who was younger, and who got a modest mark, had been sent one year early so as to be with his cousin.

In my very selected university (with strict admission test), about 10 to 20 per cent of all students were younger than they should have been.

The only thing in which my experience reflects the NYT article's content is that all people mentioned were indeed not very good at sports (my daughter redshirted herself in her minibasket course!).

I am wondering whether the difference might be related to the fact that in my country essentially all the children go to very good, very cheap state-run daycare centers for three years, and hence even younger children get prepared to the most difficult task in school: namely, sitting down and listening for more than five minutes in a row.

Friday, June 1, 2007

It's raining heavily...

maybe the end-of-the-schoolyear outdoor party of C#1 tomorrow will be canceled?

I spent some time today helping S#3 with her thesis, and I really hope she will get an offer soon. She deserves it, if not for the results for the effort she has put into this.

I had lunch with a visiting mathematician from India. She told us about her new, exciting project: being part of a commission advising the government on how to improve education across the country, particularly among the poorest people. They have already made big progress, but some states are apparently lagging behind. I found it cool that a government would ask actual scientists for such advice, and she answered that this is because both the President and the Prime Minister are or rather have been working in academia. I did let out a very, very small sigh.

I just spent one hour fixing the paper with PD#1 and S#6; it should be ready, if all is well, by the end of the month. I do resent that these two inexperieced people do not accept my suggestions but have their own views... except that about half the time their views are better than mine! The only thing in which I am obviously the best author is english spelling.

I recently found out that a workshop I co-organized last year has retroactively run out of money. I will now see what I can do to fix this, so that I don't get a reputation of cheating people out of their money.

Finally, I got an invitation for a kind-of-prestigeous conference. It's not very prestigeous, especially because obviously I have been called as a replacement for a last-minute defection, but it's not bad either.
And next week I am away at a conference full of old friends.