Friday, August 31, 2007

Making order

The week now closing has been nonexistent from a research viewpoint, due to excessive time spent with the children. So I did other things.
I started tidying up the clothes and shoes cupboards at home. I sorted through piles of stuff which doesn't fit any child in my household anymore, and divided the better (to be given to friends with younger kids) from the not so bad (to be donated to charity) from the bad, which I threw away. Having empty space is a lovely feeling, and I hope I can keep going.
It is a lot of work, though.

Elegance and science

When I think of the word elegant in a scientific context, it is usually in the sense of "The Elegant Universe", although of course I think that mathematics is way more elegant than physics will ever be :-). However, occasionally one has to consider that elegant for a human being usually means well dressed.
The only time I saw Lisa Randall, that is what impressed me most: that she is carefully
dressed in a way that most scientists (female and not) aren't. Well, that and the fact that her handwritten slides where so hard to read: I can't deal with makeup but at least my handwriting is more elegant than hers. Unfortunately I also didn't understand her talk, but that was entirely due to my lack of an appropriate background.
I don't find it bad that Tommaso Dorigo commented on her looks: she obviously gives this issue a lot of care. I did go back and read previous reports of talks by Dorigo: he never seems to refer to the looks of the speaker, male or female, but in the case of Randall he made an exception, because the looks are really striking in this case.
As Tony Smith pointed out in the comments to a later post by Dorigo, she even made an appearance on Vogue: taken in context, her statement seems actually very reasonable, and not sexist at all.
This said, I don't think that people who criticized Dorigo for including a comment on Randall's looks and her attractiveness were totally unjustified. It also seems to me no coincidence that negative remarks came both from female and minority physicists. Unfortunately there are too many physicists who do not treat men and women on equal grounds (have a long read at FSP if you have doubts about it), and therefore even reasonable people have to watch their language.
I also don't agree at all with Dorigo in the third point of his subsequent explanatory post: politely requesting pc language (not imposing it, mind you) is a reasonable thing to do. When your words are wrong, your thoughts can easily go wrong, too. In the US, eliminating the word negro from polite conversation hasn't eliminated racism. But I still view it as a progress.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Family work in a man's words

Via Salon, I found this lovely article on the New York Times. It's about a work-from-home dad who complains about how much timewaste a family actually is: in particular, how much times goes wasted in small daily emergencies. Nothing new there for me, now.
I occasionally wished I had known about this before the children were started. Maybe I would have reconsidered WS's suggestion that being an only child could have positive sides. I will try to remember this next time I compare my publication list with that of scientists with spouses who take care of all this extra work.
I actually do a bit more of my fair share, but then WS does more of the routine tasks because he hates the emergencies even more than I do. I am also ashamed to say that reading the article made me think "How long have the children gone without seeing a pediatrician?".

It's not an end, but a beginning

Here the world as we know it has come to an end. If I were writing german I would say that we have a Super-GAU (it roughly means the worst possible disaster, one which is out of control): the nanny took an extra, unauthorized-but-paid week of vacation, and the summer camp canceled the current week. So we (or, in this case, I) have the kids with me the whole day. Of course the weather, hitherto perfectly sunny, has decided to turn bad precisely this week.
I spend part of my time doing children shopping for the winter, like school stuff, shoes, and clothes, and some in my office, trying to get something done while the kids sink in an orgy of DVD's. All this interspersed with playground hours and organizational meetings with other parents for childcare and birthday parties.
A very beautiful essay I read long ago (I can't even remember what language it was in, much less the author), suggested that "It's not an end, it's a beginning" is a good guideline for any official speech: at a graduation ceremony, at a wedding, a retirement party, and even at a funeral. It applies well now, as the academic new year's eve approaches fast.
In particular, I used the occasion of being stuck in my office with a blaring cartoon movie to tidy it up and make order. I produced four large boxes of waste paper and three bags of junk, and my office looks much much better now.
I asked WS to throw away it all for me while I staid in the office with the children. He did it after receiving the following instructions: the boxes of waste paper go in the paper recycling bin; the bags of junk go in the general junk bin; you have to go there with the car since it is too far away to walk; the car is in the parking lot. Sometimes my spousal interations vaguely remind me of computer programming.
As I type, the children are colouring cartoon pictures on my desk, and I am trying to concentrate on doing some marginally useful work. I find it very hard to concentrate with all kids in the same room: legend has it that Euler could do research while kids played on his lap, so in principle it's not impossible (maybe that's how he got to publish as much as he did).
This year is really supposed to be a new beginning for me. I am reducing the number of students to a level compatible with my advising ability, I am going to spend some research time abroad with the whole family for the first time since the twins were born, and I am hopefully going to do some serious writing, both in research and on expository matter. I am cautiously optimistic. Happy New Year to everyone!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The end of summer

Actually summer isn't finished yet. School start is yet more than two weeks away, and bathing season might go on even a little longer than that. But today it's raining hard, and my personal vacation is finished, while the child minder isn't.
So what did I achieve this summer? Nothing from a professional viewpoint. I didn't do anything at all for more than three weeks. I slept a lot, ate more than usual, and enjoyed my children. I even managed not to quarrel with my parents (I must admit they also tried very hard).
The children did a few amazing things: C#1 managed to write one nice diary entry as part of her homework. For the twins, C#2 stays dry through the night, and C#3 has learned to swim, but not conversely. The whole family has a very impressive suntan, and in particular the children have blatantly inherited my mediterrenean complexion and not WS's milky one.
I am now slowly trying to go back in a worklike frame of mind, which isn't easy since I have only very few hours per day to work and everybody else seems to be still vacationing. On the other hand, a lot of work is clearly lurking on the horizon.
I am excited and worried at the same time. As a child, I remember thinking that the end of summer/beginning of fall period feels much more like the beginning of a new year than Jan 1st does. As an adult, I feel this even more strongly. So happy new year to everybody!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I finally read the Deathly Hallows

I know, everybody else has finished it weeks ago - and so far, I have only found time for one reading and one quick rereading. But I still wanted to write a short review, without spoilers.
Or, rather, since I seem to be uncapable of a coherent review, a list of remarks.
  • There's so much there about the trouble of growing up, and the specific case of doing so in a boarding school. Very british, all that, including the division in houses.
  • I have staid in a student dorm for years. We didn't have four houses, but a clear cut division science/humanities. I really felt at home at Hogwarts. (I know, this contradicts the above. So sue me).
  • I didn't like very much the writing style. Some parts are just too long, to my taste. Luckily I read really fast.
  • I love the new words she invents. I wish we could hire J.K. Rowling and have her name all new mathematical concepts.
  • I disliked the epilogue. Sorry. Too much information, and at the same time not enough.
  • I am kind of impressed that such a mainstream novel is completely and totally atheistic. In particular the characters face a lot of life-and-death choices in a very moral (or immoral, as the case may be) way without the need to refer to any organized religion. I am wondering in particular whether JKR purposefully wanted to show that life and death can have a sense even without a belief in a life after death. A question that I never found easy.
  • I find the atmosphere of loss of democracy through/followed by ad hoc laws and a control of the media extremely disturbing. Maybe because I see so much media control in reality. Of course in fact she's just giving as a history course, and the worst things she mentions are in our past and (hopefully) not in our future.
  • I want to make a final remark which contains a spoiler. So I am putting it as first comment.