Monday, November 17, 2008

Long Weekend

I spent the weekend in another town, visiting an old friend who has a daughter the same age as Hamster; I'll call her Mulan because she's smart, full of energy, and (despite her prettiness) her behaviour doesn't quite fit feminine stereotypes. Also like Mulan, she's a beloved only daughter.
Mulan's dad and I had been a bit worried preparing this vist; both girls are a bit shy, and their common language (and Mulan's native) is one that Hamster is not quite fluent in. The food and accomodation planned were also very different to what Hamster is used to.
But the girls positively surprised us. Hamster ate all the new food, and just didn't ask for seconds of things she didn't like; she let Mulan braid her hair, and they bathed together without a problem. Mulan let Hamster use her bed, and slept on a foldout on the floor; she didn't complain ever about Hamster's hesitant speech and funny accent, and willingly repeated at a slower pace many of her own sentences.
There were some difficult moments, usually related to a lack of food, or drink, or both, but they didn't last long. And I'm proud to have been with Hamster as she saw her first mummy and her first blue whale skeleton. We're now trying to plan a visit from the Mulan family to our town.
I think we need to be more courageous in traveling with the kids. Apparently the twins also behaved very well during the men-only weekend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Yesterday evening

I picked up Hamster at home, picked up her friend Celtic and Celtic's mother, and proceeded for pizza dinner plus movie. The movie was Mamma Mia!, and ours where the only children in the cinema (at the 8.15pm show). They enjoyed it a lot, although not as much as we mothers did - we got a few more jokes, or so I fervently hope.
Hamster claims she can understand part of the lyrics in the original without reading the subtitles.
I have now ordered the dvd together with a copy of Priscilla, the Queen of the Desert. I will need to discuss with PrinceC whether the latter should also be shown to the children, or at least to Hamster.
Celtic is so named because when she started going to Hamster's daycare center she was described by one of the cafeteria cooks as "she looks like a celtic princess". Celtic is very tall for her age, has a fair complexion, green eyes and wavy blond-red hair. She also wears glasses.

Blog Technique - Family Names

I've decided that I need names for people in the blog, and that the system of numbering people, while mathematically sound, is confusing me (especially as the students are heading into the double-digits).
Hence, C#1 will be henceforth called Hamster: this was her nickname when she was a baby, because of how round her face was. My husband will be PrinceC (for Prince Charming, which is how he looked like when we met - no similarity with any Wildean character is implied, although he does age well).
I'm still working on nicknames for the twins: I'm tempted by Shout for C#2 and Whine for C#3 but am afraid that it might sound negative :-).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back to everyday life

This week is the first normal week. All students are there, everybody has reached (I hope) their final office, and I have no official travel scheduled for the next few months.

On the other hand, my private life is full to the brim. Tonight, dinner at S#9's with my whole family (he actually likes kids) and his mother - who's a math professor herself. Tomorrow, to the movies with C#1, a friend and the friend mother. We will see Mamma Mia! Next weekend, London tour with C#1. Next week, I'll be part of a theatre show, reciting part of the declaration of the rights of women. This last event is particularly pleasant, since it's a direct effect of female lobbying, namely having dinner with most of my female colleagues (unfortunately, though more than half were present, we didn't need a particularly large table).

Now I just have to finish two overdue projects, but I find it incredibly hard since all I want to do is work on my New Pet Project. I have even chosen what journal to send the paper to :-).

Oh, and there are no comments at all about the Obama election because I tend to talk when I'm grumpy.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Like in the old days

I feel young again. Today I took a long (9+ hours) train trip, since taking the airplane woudn't have been so much faster. To complete the deja-vu feeling, the second train was 35 minutes late. So I missed the third, and ended up spending one hour chatting with a friend of my college years in front of the station, under an unseasonably blue sky.
The unfortunate side effect is that I'm completely exhausted.

To justify the label mathwork, I'll add that:
1) I did work during most of the journey;
2) purpose of said journey is participation in a scientific conference.

I hope that on my way back the three-train system will work somewhat better - or this time I'll end up speding the night at my friend's place.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Big changes

Actually, big changes are usually evident to the outside world: a member more or less in the family, a new abode and/or job. Here nothing so momentous has happened, but still a feeling of revolution is dominating me.
The most obvious event is that the twins have started school. C#2 has already achieved basic reading skills (in the native language, which is one where the connection between written and spoken is almost bijective).
C#3 is not so far, but on the other hand he's officially the second best player of "Fusball" (Tischfussball/calciobalilla) in our household, and I have to concentrate pretty hard to maintain my leading position. At least the long hours of training in my university years have now helped me gain the respect of my son.
My daughter C#1 is taking both english and german lessons this year. Since the summer she has obtained a weekly allowance, and yesterday she spent some of it for the first time. She bought a "Teach yourself spanish" book. All I can say is that deep in my heart my 8-year-old self is dying with envy.

But the main change is that I'm putting order in my life, inside and outside. I've organized my new bedroom, formerly known as family storage area (what used to be mine is now C#1's). I'm not yet done, but I'm on my way to have a snug home office. And I've reorganized my office. Not only can one finally see the floor, and the cleaning ladies have actually started to clean it, but I know what's where - well, there are still some piles of junk I have to go through, but I'm definitely improving.

Last week I had my first (small) political victory in my current "leadership" position (the one half of my colleagues thought I was unfit for). This required a lot of organizing, but I'm quite happy with the result and especially with my choice of allies. And a colleague told me that I've managed to change my speech style: he said I sound much more professional.
I'm also starting to work together with the very few other female professors; that's particularly useful since we're distributed across fields and can give each other inside information on what the other groups are thinking.

And tomorrow I'm going to a conference: I have a pleasant and productive week in front of me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

On the republican VP candidate

It's kind of weird to think that on the tickets in the US there's a man the age of my husband, and a woman (almost) my age. It's even more impressive to think that she has managed to pursue a demanding career while giving birth to five children, the youngest born April 2008. The youngest also has Down Syndrome.
Apparently, Palin declared herself surprised since "her other pregnancies went so well". On the other hand, she's pro-life, so she decided to continue the pregnancy, after discussing with her husband.
Everybody is saying how nice this is, to see somebody who really believes in what she says (Palin is very strongly pro-life).
Somehow, I'm not so impressed. Palin went back to work three days after the child was born. It seems evident that, whoever has to spend hours and hours bringing this baby to the doctor, to the logopedist, to the physical therapist, etcetera, it will not be Ms Palin. So what will she do? Maybe nurse him. Spend some "quality time" with him. I mean, whatever time she can spare for her already existing children - the eldest is going to Iraq in September, but the other 3 still at home.
So let's recap. This woman chose to have a child at an age where she knew that Down Syndrome had a very high likelyhood. She knew that she was well to do enough that she wouldn't have to give up her job, and her life, and her husband, and her other children, to take care of the newborn however sick he was. So she made the same decision I made, when I decided not to test my feti for genetic anomalies. I knew that it wouldn't be the end of my life, either (although I'm sure glad that mine are so far healthy).
I fail to see how this example has any relevance to the many, many women who choose to abort a handicapped fetus. Or who choose an abortion for a million different reasons, most of which Ms Palin has no experience of.
Still, if she's the choice, maybe the Republican will stop saying that Obama is unexperienced? McCain is 72 and a cancer survivor; the chances that his VP will be promoted President are definitely significant.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


I actually don't have anything against them. Except for the immensely imbecile article they wrote, which appeared on cnn (and I saw via Feministing). Title: Boys will be boys, girls will be girls from birth.
They have a list of "scientific facts" none of which is accompanied by even the remotest reference. The nearest they go to a reference is saying that a study was carried out by "psychologists at Cambridge, England" - and it is in fact a study on something strange, namely whether one-year old would rather look at talking faces or at windscreen wipers. Seems totally irrelevant to me.
The few studies (some more are mentioned without a reference, all of a similar kind) are interspersed with the journalist's prejudice, for which no reference is even attempted: e.g., that girls have more interest in clothing and shoes than boys do.
Of course I could make a big case of how I have precisely one child (my son C#2) who really cares about clothing, and especially shoes, and how he has recently (age 5) discovered jewels and is perpetually asking for becklaces and bracelets. But I won't. I'll just sit there and worry about the antifeminist backlash on both sides of the Atlantic, after having learned that Obama chose a 65-year old catholic as vp, and is being increasingly wishy-washy about the abortion issue.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Busy days

Yesterday I had an administrative meeting. It started at 9.30 am, paused for 15 minutes for lunch, and at 4pm the rest of it was rescheduled for tomorrow morning. This morning I lectured two hours; I'll spend most of the afternoon doing oral examinations, and I'm giving a talk tomorrow afternoon.

I spent last Saturday socializing with C#1's schoolmates and their parents, and Sunday caring for two more kids than usual while their parents took an afternoon off. They offered to have my kids Monday evening, so that I could have a date night with my husband. When I arrived home Monday in the late afternoon, C#1 had sprained her foot, so my friends took care of C#2 and C#3, while we spent our "date night" queuing at pediatric emergency ward (five days of rest, than good as new).

I definitely need summer vacations, but that has to wait until mid-July.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Plannning research time

I thought I had a great idea, namely to leave my schedule completely free on fridays. For some reasons, fridays there are less students around, so I figured out it would be a great day for getting some research done.
Two fridays in the last four turned out to be vacations/strikes (at school, which means I can't work). Today all seemed fine and promising - and when he woke up, C#3 couldn't walk. Well, he could walk a tiny bit, limping, and crying with pain.
So I called the pediatrician, and he squeezed me in at 9.45am - which means we got in at 10.30, and out at 11. Current diagnosis is arthritis, and I just spent some time looking up several versions of arthritis on wikipedia. None of them looks any good.
C#3 is home now; he feels better after some medication, and nanny is with him. Still, I somehow can't think of research at all. Unless it is on medline, that is.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Movie rerereview

A movie review is what you write after having seen a movie. A movie rerereview is what you write after having read what someone wrote after talking to someone who saw a movie.

I'm talking about Fermat's room, and I am going only to make comments on the (re)review. It's a movie about four mathematicians who get together to solve(?) Goldbach's conjecture. It's apparently an appreciated movie (possibly because the actual purpose of the meeting is to kill them all).

What I found most incredible is "four mathematicians who don't know each other". What? Four number theorists, good enugh that it at all makes sense to assume that they have a chance at Goldbach's conjecture, and they don't know each other?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I should have spent the day on the beach

Today the weather was gorgeous. Sunny, dry, with just a few white clouds to make the sky prettier.
And I feel I wasted it. I barely managed to prepare my lecture (because of discussions with students), gave my lectures, talked with students/postdocs/colleagues the whole afternoon. And now I am too tired to do anything useful.
Luckily the weekend is on its way.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


This morning was a bit more work than usual, since C#1 had a guest for the night, her tall, blonde friend CelticPrincess. It was hard to convince them that bedtime had arrived. This morning, however, they behaved very well and went to school on time. We might soon organize a double visit, with CelticPrincess' brother (aka CelticPrince) also spending the night - he's the same age of C#2 and C#3, although significantly larger.

I spent some time organizing the children's summer activities, the family vacation, and booking visits to a house we may want to buy(!). I then gave a lecture, talked to a number of students, and have yet a few more meetings before I go pick up C#1 (who has two extracurricular activities on wednesday afternoon).

What is really really useful is my new computer, my first tablet pc. What used to be my own lecture notes, scribbled on several sheets of paper which promptly got lost, is now an editable file which all of my students get a copy of. Which means that in later years the same notes can be used for self-study, or to organize a student-run seminar. I just wish I had bought it earlier.

And if next weekend the weather keeps good, it's time to go to the beach. I love summer, even when it's still spring.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Scientiae carnival: changing career prospects

When you have to make an official speech and have no idea what to say, you can always start with "it's not an end, but a beginning": works at graduation, weddings, but also retirements and even funerals, apparently.

Amazingly, it is also true in my personal life. Ten years ago I wanted to achieve a good solution to the two-body problem, and a family. Five years ago I had achieved that, and was struggling very hard to balance. Now it's getting easier, and I am finding time for further debate.

What kind of advisor do I want to be? How many students can I deal with at one time? How do I choose them? What are my duties towards them during and, possibly more importantly, after the PhD studies? It took me way too long to realize that I can choose the number of my students, just as I choose that of my children (or, more precisely, that of my pregnancies).

Should I, or should I not, go into "sidetracks" like university politics, didactical efforts, and scientific divulgation? I enjoy a bit of this, but do I have the time? On the other hand, can I afford not to be involved in the decisional process?

How do I balance work and family time? As my children grow, I feel I should spend more time (working) at home, so as to be there if they need me. Is this possible? What can I do to facilitate it? It doesn't help that seminars tend to be scheduled in the afternoon, sometimes late in the afternoon, but not in the morning. Maybe I can change that? For next year, I am actually planning to go home midafternoon at least two days per week.

The most important question is, what do I want to do research on now? Gone are the times when I would write and publish anything I could prove; I don't have time for everything anymore, especially if I want to save time to keep learning new things. So I have to make choices, bet on what I think are the most interesting options. At the same time, I feel it's important to follow my own taste, do whatever I think is relevant even if in the short term its impact might be limited.

As a related question, I have to choose which activities (schools, conferences, research institutes) I attend. I can't go everywhere I am invited to. And often a serendipitous choice has proven much more useful than I would have thought (last instances: a school in January, which spawned a research article, and a conference on topic A, not so interesting, which turned out to be packed with hard-to-locate experts in topic B).

Finally, like for everybody in academia, I have to consider in the back of my mind the possibility that I might work better elsewhere. It is not very likely to happen, since it's not so easy to move two full professors working in the same, pathetically small area of mathematics, and not being stars in it either, but it could still happen, and I like to keep my ears and my mind open - keeping in mind what the pluses and minuses would be for the children as well.

So how do I face all these choices? This is something I haven't changed at all, since the day, 20+ years ago, when I discovered that there was such a job as research mathematician and decided to try my best to do it. I get lots of information, both reading (on paper and on screen) and talking to people. I make diagrams and lists for myself, tables with possible plans, and so on.

And after I have removed the impossible and the unreasonably unlikely, I decide with my heart as well as with my brain (indeed, I suspect that in me these two organs have a strange short-circuit). I choose activities I enjoy, students and collaborators I find humanly likeable, participate in events that will make it possible for me to meet again pleasant people who live far away. I choose research problems that appeal to my mathematical taste, and don't worry on where I will publish the outcome.

That's what I have done so far, and it worked very well. It is funny because, although I am not a believer anymore, the idea was originally a religious one: I don't remember the precise words, but it was something like "look for the Kingdom of Heavens, and the rest will be given you as a free extra". Similarly, in my life I have looked for beauty, love and happiness. The rest (a good job in a reasonable university) more or less happened by itself.

I was lucky, but not terribly lucky: it wasn't so hard then. I am sad that I don't see a similarly straight path for the younger people I advise, unless they are willing to leave their country (which I now am, but wasn't at their age). I try to be very honest with them, and I keep hoping that times will change again.

This post is written for , which is organized at A Cat Nap by Flicka Mawa.

Resuming, slowly

Now that was a long break. I took some months off... well, just about everything, and devoted my time to research and parenting. It was great. Fabulous.

And it worked amazingly. C#1 stopped sucking her thumb! I can't believe it! And I have now a large (well, large for me) number of papers in the pipeline. Now I am back to teaching/administration duties/advising, so I will have to proceed more slowly.

After what feels like many, many years of winter, spring is really coming.