Monday, May 19, 2014

Easter vacation in Romania

Ciupi the second and the two ducklings
With Ciupi the 2nd
The ducklings
For two weeks the children had their own pet lamb and two ducklings to follow them around. The ducklings were about one month old and thus big enough to not be in imminent danger from the cats. By the end of the vacation, Edward had the courage to carry one of the ducks across the garden. He felt very strong and smart every time he did it. He would thus come and remind me in the evening that we had to put the ducklings to bed. Ciupi the 2nd was just as friendly as Ciupi the 1st, which is the lamb I had when I was in highschool. We only wished we could have stayed longer.

Easter treats
With Buni Luci's chickens
Investigating baby spiders
Before we left Zurich to go on vacation, we received a package with some Easter candy and treats from Edward's grandparents and two chocolate-Easter chickens from the next door neighbour who regularly gives the children treats.

There was no time to dye or paint Easter eggs this year. When my mom and I were not driving, there was a lot of paperwork to do and people to see. However, the day we arrived in Timisoara Buni Luci (our next door neighbour) gave the children Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs. She also brought us boiled, red-dyed eggs from her chickens, and really good cakes and fresh radishes the garden, which we took back with us. We even planted a very tiny raddish outside our house in Switzerland. It must have gotten pulled out by mistake, but now it's grown quite big. The rest we ate. Mari (a very good family friend) sent us sarmale and cakes and eggs from Clopodia. Tanti Lenuta made fresh orange juice and placinta, and my brother, Mihai cooked wild boar for us. It's the first time he cooked when I was there. I guess it's better to start later than never. My cousin, Delia, also came to see us and brought us really good chocolate and T-shirts for the children, and hair-pins for me. It is always great to see her, and everyone else, of course.

The stone quarry
We visited a stone quarry! It was very exciting! The children climbed
Climbing on gravel
on various piles of gravel and splashed in the water at the bottom of the quarry. The water was much warmer than the Mures river, which flows nearby. We were told the water in the quarry was clean since it is removed every work-day. It was a little muddy. However, I think the probability of it being contaminated by radioactive elements like Uranium is fairly small, and we did not drink it anyway. The volcanic rocks, which broke easily to Edward's delight, were a little tough on our feet. There was also complicated metal machinery for extracting the stones from the mountain, and some fancy bulldozers & other things to investigate.

The run-away boat
Mihai saved a run-away boat that had been taken by the current. It was quite dramatic. The children were crying when they were watching Mihai swim after the boat because they were worried he would not make it back. It was spring and the river was carrying all sorts of trees and trash. 

Pheasants & chicks & little dogs, and wild piglets
We saw pheasants flying by the road and lots of baby chicks in all the farms we visited. One of the
children also had a tiny dog whose name was Haiduc. He had his own little house built for him with the name written on it.

With Grandma on a swing
One farmer showed us two wild piglets they had. They were raising them together with their domestic piglets. They looked stripy, but otherwise similar to the other piglets. The wild pigs can be quite a problem for crops. So, people hunt them and when left behind after the mother is killed, the piglets die if they are not adopted by people. While it is cruel to hunt wild boars when we as people have so much more than animals, it must have been how pigs were domesticated in the first place.

We saw many more birds, pheasants, deer, wolves and wild boars in Romania, Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. This was very evident as we were driving through.  Of course, all agriculture is moving towards monocultures. But some diversity should be encouraged and supported. Otherwise, most wild life will be gone. There should be more parks and forests, and fewer zoos where wild animals are always so unhappy.

Edward's dream 
On Thursday (May 1st) Edward woke up telling me a story. He said he dreamed that all the houses were falling down, but he was not scared because all the people were dead. So, the houses were not needed any more. Instead of people there were dinosaurs and cars and tractors. The machines could all function on their own. However, the crops would run away from the tractors. Then the tractors could not harvest them. Apparently this was very funny. Even the potatoes would run away, which was good because it allowed the plants to live longer. I am not sure what the dinosaurs in Edward's dream ate, but, evidently, this was not a bad dream for him because he likes tractors, cars and dinosaurs. I guess he does not think the world needs anything else.

Dreams, spells and the Kangaru
Lugoj: with Tanti Mia and Costel
Both Edward and David have very vivid imaginations. They each own a "kangaru" in their dreams - which is a flying machine that can do any number of things. It contains a big bed where they both can sleep until late in the morning and pans for cooking pancakes, and lots of candy. And whenever there is something that they are not allowed/cannot have, they will fly with their kangaru and take it. They also pretend to be wizards and compose spells. We read a book about the Buchstabenhexe and were hooked on spells since (no Harry Potter or Wizard of Oz yet).

Since I am mentioning dreams, I should say that we went to Lugoj for a few hours and saw Tanti Mia and Nenea Costel.  They are still just as kind, charismatic and funny as they have always been (I heard how beautiful I am; I am more beautiful than the last time they saw me, and somehow I am going to become even more beautiful in the future) and it's always amazing to see them. Lugoj is still the perfect place on Earth for me and it's present in most of my dreams - although, I admit it is unlikely it will ever be important for my children.

First fine while driving in Europe
I received a fine for not having my lights on in Hungary. It was noon, and the sun was shinning brightly. I was driving slowly on a country road, when two policemen stopped me and fined me in Hungarian. They took almost an hour to write my name on a sheet of paper and then on their computer. It was clearly not because of any safety concerns - they just need money. I suppose the roads in Hungary are good enough and they are building more. So, some of my 30 Euro fine hopefully went to a good cause. However, it was annoying that Mihai had to go back to Hungary to pay it. Since it was in Hungarian, banks outside Hungary did not know what to do with it. Also, Switzerland is outside the EU.

Changing tires

Mihai and the children replaced the front tires of the car. They had fun doing it!

Changing Tires
Note: This post is both overdue and overcrowded with too many things, but it's the best I can do for now.  I am not aiming to include everything - just some fraction of what I remember. I apologize for what I forgot to mention or described too little or too much.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Days to laugh and days to cry

I never used to cry. I never used to get sick. When other people told me they cried or were sick I tried to be compassionate, but I thought of them as inferior. This was ten years ago. There are times I still catch myself thinking that way when I see weaknesses in myself and in others.
  One of my best friends from graduate school said she cried almost every day in our first year of graduate school and still often enough afterwards.  I thought it was ridiculous to cry for no "good" reason. The reasons that I considered worth crying for were (1) the death of someone in the family and (2) a serious illness or accident. This is how I was raised. I did not see either my grandmother or my mother crying unless something really awful had happened. Even then, they were always strong and always seemed to have everything under control. It did not make sense that someone who was in her early twenties, smart, beautiful, healthy, living in a city in the mountains full of gorges and waterfalls, and attending one of the best schools in the world would spend her evenings crying. My friend continued to be successful. She received her PhD a number of years ago, has a well-paid job in industry, and is happily married. She said that she chose to work in industry because academia made her unhappy. The office space in the various basements was depressing, and the cold, very competitive, and the sometimes unfair atmosphere was unnecessarily unpleasant. 

I stayed on. As a theorist I do not work in basements, and I do not feel my colleagues are too competitive, but I recently started to cry. Crying still makes me feel weak, useless and inferior. I am also sick fairly often with minor headaches and colds. Nothing really unpleasant, but I no longer feel a tower of strength. I have no good reasons for crying. Zurich is beautiful, and my family loves me. So, why did I cry today? the beginning of April I started a project with a professor I know well who is really brilliant. As agreed, I drafted a paper over the Easter vacation based on a calculation he did after joint discussion, and then I sent it to him. It's only been 2-3 weeks, but somehow the lack of communication makes me cry. I thought that we established we'd try to finish this project before he went on vacation at the end of May. A week ago he said he'll answer that day, but that day passed and so did 7 others. OK, maybe he thinks what I wrote is total crap and not worth answering to or he just does not have time. Given his one dimensional intellectual brilliancy, I am inclined to believe a combination of the two.  Yes, I know I am behaving like a teenager, and that research takes time, and patience and politically correct behaviour. I am likely upset about nothing. Things accumulate before vacation for many people, but I have several projects with this person which he finally told me will never be finished, and I did not want another one added to that list. I thought this project was short and relatively simple, and that we'd be able to finish it, but now I don't know. Of course,  I have so many other projects to work on. Yet I waste the time that I should be spending doing the many things I need to finish feeling unhappy. At times like this I so want to quit and leave and go do something else, somewhere else. Anything. Anywhere. Not because of this one particular project, but it is just one more thing that makes me feel that I am not fit to continue. 

Will I quit today? Not today or any time in the immediate future. Academia provides flexible jobs to relatively smart people. It's hard to be at the top of a pyramid and it's hard to stay there. However, I now conclude that one does not have to have a "good" reason to either laugh or cry. Whatever the profession, there will be some days when it's easy to laugh and some days when it is easy to cry, and it's ok to do both. Oh...and one does not have to have a profession to either laugh or cry. Such abilities come with being human and being alive

Will I quit in the next two or three years?  I am not sure yet. I see so many people who are more talented than I am who quit. Since there is no room for them, it often feels like it would be unfair if there was room for me. I am not sure that staying in academia is the "right" choice for me, but, then, is there a right choice? How is that defined?  I will not be too sad if I had to quit in a few years. As long as I am alive I'll find things to do and try to do them well (from time to time; nobody gets everything right all the time, right?). In the meantime, I will deal with the many immediate problems: moving to another apartment, paperwork, make an effort to finish some of the many existent projects, etc.

Plan: Today I'll go home to my family and I'll be cheerful. I should start working out. It might solve all my problems. Also, I'll practice being less angry with myself and with other people.

Update: I understand that working out & running would have a positive impact on my life, but I am still too undisciplined to do either on a regular basis. I am still not sure that crying for no "good" reason is good, but it's good to be able to feel emotions. To be happy, to be sad from time to time. After all, laughing and crying should make humans feel better. The latter does give headaches when prolonged, but headaches prove that one has a head with a brain with neurons and connections between them, which at times is important to be reminded of. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Women in Science

Marie Curie & her daughters, 1908 Giclee Print
Meg Urry gave two fabulous seminars on Women in Science to jump start a related program from University of Zurich. Her talks are always fun (see for example "Why so few?") to listen to. 

She concluded with "become a professor, have a family".  I want to add that one should not wait to become a professor to have a family.  I do not think careers are worth postponing life for. Rather, our lives should fit around the job we have, whatever that job is.

Otherwise, I second that an academic career is flexible. This is one reason I chose it. The down side is that universities typically do not have child-care centres with enough spots for their own faculty and staff (in Zurich they recommend getting on the waiting list long before getting pregnant, which I find ridiculous), but then most jobs do not come with a functional child-care package and the professor salary is enough to cover child-care - one child at a time.  In an academic environment the job is flexible and most stress is self-imposed. So, that's all very good relative to other professions.

The rest of her talk
This is my summary (Attention: her talk was entertaining and funny; not obvious from the summary!). She emphasized that our educational system does not attract the best students it could attract to science careers and so changes are needed, and they have not been made. While there is less overt bias, the number of women in science has not changed much over the past few decades. She also argued that both women and men are biased and that being aware and accepting that we are biased reduces the bias. Again, there is various data that supports this view from people asked to estimate the size of a vehicle or person in charge to boys/girls asked to solve math problems to people evaluating resumes. She explained that there are no intrinsic differences between men and women that could explain this gap.

She also emphasised that a more diverse group of people is more creative and overall better than a homogenous group of people. So, we should NOT strive to hire people who are exactly like us, but instead hire people who complement our abilities and interests. We also have to be aware that we are biased towards hiring people who are just like us (men - preferably originating from the same country as us and educated by somebody we know) and make an effort to reduce this bias.

I believe in increasing the number of qualified people in all professions. This involves having better schools, and better teachers who can reach out to their students and make whatever they teach interesting. There are additional efforts that can be made to help students from diverse backgrounds make it through, and such steps need to be taken by more universities and schools around the world. Also, it would be good to have selection processes that are more open when looking for new faculty vs. knowing who they want to hire before they start. Universities are important in that the research we do drives the industry development, and in order to come up with new ideas we need diversity.

Meg's talk was meant to jumpstart a program at the ETH/University where they review the interviewing process for new faculty to make sure it's fair. While the idea is good, what they planned to do seemed extremely complicated (and likely expensive) with many work packages and a tremendous amount of bureaucracy.  There are so few positions and I see so many very talented people of both sexes quitting that I am not particularly excited about putting a lot of effort in a review of a review of a committee. Since there is already so much bureaucracy, which it takes a significant fraction of our time, it seems that we would accomplish more by reducing paperwork instead of enhancing it.