Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tomorrow isn't going to be like that, right?

Last night I had my first teaching anxiety dream for this semester.

I'd forgotten it was a teaching day, not noticed what time it was until ten minutes after I was meant to be teaching, not been able to find the classroom (the university had mysteriously morphed into an underground labyrinth) and turned up completely unprepared, having not even brought any whiteboard markers with me, let alone the first assignment I was planning to go through with them. Oh, and the HOD was sitting in the classroom to observe my teaching.


Does anyone else get these?

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This excitingly two-toned finger is brought to you by a cute little buzzy bee.

When I saw his furry little arse sticking out of my finger yesterday afternoon, I felt sorry for him, having to tear himself in half and die, just for being brave enough to defend himself. Also because bees are nice and make us honey.

I don't feel sorry for him anymore. Because it fucking hurt. All night. And is still hurting. Hich mean I am trying to avoid typing letter that make me ue my left ring finger.

Nasty buzzy little bastards. Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 27, 2006

So I guess I'll be fitting that in between midnight and 7 a.m., then

I've just started work on a new chapter of my thesis.

1. Number of relevant references that I am aware of: 60
2. Number that look familiar: 49
3. Number I can be certain I have read*: 35
4. Number I can find my notes on: 20
5. Number of days I had allowed for the reading required for this chapter so as to get it finished in time to meet an (externally imposed) deadline: 0

Because I thought I had read all the relevant works last year already, dinnint I?

*The difference between the numbers in (2) and (3) is due to the transition period (a.k.a black vortex of despair) that was the time between when I stopped using the Fantastic and Comprehensive Best System Ever for Keeping Track of My Reading and started using the Fantastic and Comprehensive Best System Ever for Keeping Track of My Reading That Actually Works. (Which I gave up shortly afterward in favour of the Fantastic and Comprehensive Best System Ever for Keeping Track of My Reading That Actually Works and Doesn't Do My Head In).

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Geekman displays his grasp of international concerns

I told Geekman earlier today that I might have an opportunity to travel to Thailand later this year.

His reply: "Are you sure you want to go to Thailand? You might get kidnapped and sold into sex terrorism."

Sex terrorism? I didn't want to ask what exactly he meant by that, but my best guess is that it's when people plot to bring about the downfall of other countries through the use of strategically-placed prostitutes.

Warning: too much early morning can be hazardous to your analogies

It just struck me how much blogging is like some religions' version of praying: you ramble on about random thoughts and feelings, ask for guidance, mention a few other people you like and hope that they will get blessed (read: get traffic), and then sit back and wait for signs that you have been heard (comments, links, etc).

(So does that mean the internet is God?)

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

This weirdness is brought to you by Blogger's "next blog" button

Is this person trying to be funny? I really can't tell. But I nearly pissed myself laughing anyway. The rest of the blog is pretty much more of the same.

Whinge: a dialect form of Middle English whinsen < O.E. hwinsian

Geekman and I both, in our separate yet sadly parallel ways, had crap days yesterday (although they don't seem so bad at all compared to the one ShrinkyKitten had on Wednesday). Geekman's was mostly caused by work frustrations; mine by a whole mix of things. Partly because I hardly got any work done at all. Partly because I think I've made a big mess of something to do with the conference workshop I'm organising (I'll post on that later when I know whether I have irredeemably screwed up or not). And partly because, when we decided to cheer ourselves up by visiting friends and getting Chinese takeaways with them for dinner, we turned out to have been talking at cross-purposes with each other, so that they thought they were coming to our place and we thought we were going to theirs. So we spent nearly an hour waiting outside their house on the other side of town (without the food, which they had volunteered to pick up), while they were sitting outside our place, wondering why we had invited them round and then gone out for the evening.

Oh oh, and then, when we finally managed to synchronise our time-space coordinates, it turned out that the shop had accidentally left out the nicest dish of the order, while still charging us for it. And by then, no one wanted to drive across town again to pick it up.

But mostly the frustrations of the day were due to a doctor's appointment for a minor but irritating injury to my hand that has been bugging me for about six weeks now.

The doctor was running 45 minutes late, something that no one seemed to think was worth mentioning when I checked in at reception, and it was, of course, the first time ever that I hadn't bothered to bring some work to do with me. So this put me in a bad mood right from the start. When I finally got to see her, and I mentioned that the injury originally happened at the gym, the doctor made it clear right off that she didn't think "girls" had any business doing heavy weights anyway. If it hadn't been for this, I mightn't have been quite so suspicious about the rest of the visit.

Since I hadn't been to her before, she also took a whole lot of routine information, and measured my blood pressure. I've had borderline high blood pressure for a while now, but since I don't have any lifestyle risk factors (I don't smoke, I eat healthily, exercise a lot and am not over weight) doctors have never suggested there is anything I should do about it. But this one sadly shook her head and said, "Well, I don't think weight lifting is a good idea at all for someone with high blood pressure."

We had a little back and forth about how I thought studies had shown that weight lifters generally had lower blood pressure than your average person (when not lifting, obviously) and she said that, yes, but the extra pressure of the actual lifts could be very bad for you, and I should "give up all heavy weights immediately". Little pink hand weights on high reps are still fine, of course. Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while probably can no doubt guess how I feel about that. (And if you don't, take a look here and here, for example).

So I really don't know what to think about this. She obviously had something against weight lifting to start with, but the bit of googling I've done since does turn up lots of references to the "fact" that people with "uncontrolled high blood pressure" should avoid "intense weight lifting". But does that include people with "borderline high blood pressure"? By "uncontrolled" do they mean "if you aren't on medication"? And what's the definition of "intense", anyway? I'm thinking I need a second opinion, which pisses me off too, because I really couldn't afford to go to the doctor in the first place, and I don't want to have to fork out more money for another visit.

Oh, and her solution for the hand injury was "no weight lifting at all for a month, then come back and see me."

Friday, February 24, 2006

To make up for that nasty spider photo

Today's pretty parrot is a rosella. I was sad for him/her, because s/he was all alone. Usually they come in pairs, like shoes. But this one was doing the happy parrot chattering thing anyway, so maybe s/he had an imaginary friend. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Lost and found

Hurry and kill the fatted calf (or, preferably, hunt down and slaughter a nice piece of tofu), for my tutorial was lost and has returned!

It turns out the whole thing was a big, messy, financially-motivated misunderstanding. Which is a bloody good thing, because it was getting very awkward having to cope with all the sympathetic looks I was getting and murmurs of "Hey, I heard about your tutorials," without letting my big internalised sulk make a break for daylight.

Newly Graduated Student (NGS) came to see me today and explained that, while she had requested to teach four courses, she was really hoping to teach one of these in another subject, which was closer to her specialty area. She had even wrangled the agreement of the course convenor, and was on the point of signing a contract, when lo! she received a visitation from a wrathful deity who did point out that, since we are paid extra for the first tutorial in each subject and less for each subsequent "repeat", NGS was committing grievous budgetary sin to even think about teaching only one class in a subject.

So this vengeful deity then organised for NGS to do four classes for Intro instead of three for Intro and one for the other course, but organised this without consulting NGS. Who for reasons best known to herself would prefer to teach only three classes in total if she can't do one in her preferred subject.

At this point I threw up my hands in disbelief at how complicated this was getting, eeped loudly when I realised said hands had still been holding a cup of hot coffee, mopped that off my trousers as best I could, and asked NGS nicely to go and sort out her schedule with HOD (who has now stopped wearing his vengeful deity hat) and ScaryLecturer, as well as the administrator who, poor woman, has had to prepare three different versions of my contract.

The upshot of it all is that I have my three classes back, NGS has her three, and everybody is happy except my trousers.

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Excuse the harping on about this, but

the only thing I like better than Irish cream flavoured milk steamers with chocolate sprinkles...

is the woman behind the counter who served me today and warned, "If it's too much, tell me. I pour a little bit generous" [shy smile] "Because I l-i-i-i-i-ke it."

Believe me: I have nothing against pouring a little bit generous.

My house, in the middle of my street

Usually I don't bother with these things, but this one (seen on Merialc.com) is kind of cute. And drawing the house is like being in kindergarten all over again :)

The "avoiding being alone and seeking other people's company" bit, the "you always want to live alone" and the "you don't think much about yourself" are just flat out wrong. But the rest is pretty accurate.

You are sensitive and indecisive at times. You are a freedom lover and a strong person. You are shy and reserved. If you've drawn a cross on each of windows, you always want to live alone. You are very tidy person. There's nothing wrong with that because you're pretty popular among friends. Your life is always full of changes.

You will avoid being alone and seek the company of others whenever possible. You love excitement and create it wherever you go. You have a strong personality and you like to command, influence and control people.

You added a flower into your drawing. The flower signifies that you long for love. It also safe to say that others don't see you as a flirt. You don't think much about yourself.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Changed my mind. I don't want to stay here after all.

See this? See it? That is why you don't want to live in Australia if you have a heart condition. It's five minutes after I found him and my pulse is still racing like I just did a set of 80 kg squats.

The smoke detector is 16 cm (six and a half inches) in diameter, by the way (I measured it after Geekman had gently carried Mr. Huntsman outside and deposited him in a tree).

To any Australians who might read this: I know they aren't poisonous. I know they grow much bigger than this. All I have to say is that I am off to sit with a duvet over my head until I calm down, and if any other huntsmen (large or small) should manage to insinuate their way into my personal space in the meantime, I will be holding John Howard personally responsible. Oh yes.

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Things not to say at the start of the first class of the semester...

...unless you are really hoping to reduce class numbers.

ScaryLecturer: "You are all here because you get turned on by language."

ScaryLecturer: "This course is going to be really hard, there will be more work than in most first-year courses, and it will probably not be anything like what you are expecting."

ScaryLecturer: "Basically, this semester will be an exercise in brainwashing you into seeing things from my perspective."

A German professor I once had, in Germany, to a class of third-year Germans: "If your English is not good enough that you can read a paper by Chomsky in less than an hour and understand it fully, you should drop out now and go take remedial English lessons." (Three students walked out. Hell, I don't think even Chomsky understands his own papers fully).

An English teacher I had at high school: "Hands up who hates reading. Well, so do I. But I passed English right through to university level anyway and so can you."

I'd love to hear about things you have heard (or said and later regretted!) that caused students to flee a class in droves.

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Cos he's so approachable

Me: "I think the biggest difference between teaching two and three tutorials a week is the amount of marking* I'll have to do."

ScaryLecturer: "Actually, I think you'll find it will be the number of students who will come to see you in your office hours."

Me: "I shouldn't think so. Last year I hardly had any students wanting to see me, except right before exams. They mostly went straight to [last year's lecturer] for problems that weren't directly related to the tutorial."

ScaryLecturer: "That's odd. Usually my tutors find they are overwhelmed with students wanting to talk to them. Hardly any students come to me with their questions."

* I almost wrote "grading" there, which shows I spend far too much time reading American blogs.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

At least one fewer tutorial lengthens the odds

After observing the first lecture for the Intro course I will be tutoring, I have come up with a mental shortlist of students I am hoping will not be in my classes:

  1. The student who fell asleep within 10 minutes of the start, not even bothering to try and keep her head off the desk.

  2. The student who raised her hand eagerly every time ScaryLecturer asked a rhetorical question (and often enough when he didn't).

  3. The student who referred to a web browser as "that thing that lets you type words into a sort of slit and then it takes you to things that aren't on your computer" (I can tell he is going to have fun with the electronic tutorial sign-up, not to mention that his essays are going to be articulate).

  4. The student who, when answering a question in class, made a (possibly unintentionally) inappropriate remark about me.*

  5. The student who ScaryLecturer described as "practically suicidal" with anxiety about the course material.

  6. The student who has already come to see me twice today about minor questions to do with administrative matters, when the only person who can actually answer his questions is ScaryLecturer -- not to mention that my office hours haven't even started yet.
Unfortunately, students three through six in that list are the same person. And since, as I've mentioned before, I always attract the crazies, I can just tell he's going to sign up for my class.

* Please note: one moment of not thinking about how something will sound before it came out of your mouth is perfectly understandable. We've all been there (although maybe not in front of 108 fellow students). It does not mean you have "screwed up so badly already, the only option is to drop the course right now". And coming to see me and ScaryLecturer individually to ask if this is the case is only going to guarantee that we both remember you. In the negative sense.

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Hooray for the new on-campus sushi bar

which is something this university was sadly lacking until this week.

And a triple hooray for Irish cream flavoured milk steamers with chocolate sprinkles on top.

Excuse me while I vent

I lost a tutorial. Grumble.

I don't mean I accidentally misplaced it, because that would be careless, even for me. I mean that after weeks of no one but me showing any interest in teaching the Intro tutorials, I got a visit from the HOD yesterday to tell me that two other grad students and one newly graduated one have requested teaching. All of a sudden. And he'd like to find a "solution", which, because he is being tugged in two directions by not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings and also having a negative budget to play with, is not easily forthcoming.

Seeing how late their requests were (like, the week that semester started), he felt justified in turning down the two other grad students. And fortunately for me, I'm cheaper to employ than someone who already has their PhD, so I'm not losing all of my classes. But HOD was feeling understandably sorry for Newly Graduated Student, as a teaching position she had arranged for this year had just fallen through, and she also has a new baby to cope with.

HOD made it clear he wasn't going to redistribute any of my tutorials without my agreement, but I feel there was a lot of subtle pressure to play nice and give in. So instead of the reply I wanted to make, which was "No! I asked for these back in November. And I need the money to fund my travel to the conference workshop I am organising. They're all mine. Mi...i...i...i...ne!" I said I could probably manage to do two instead of three. And ScaryLecturer is giving up his two as well, which he will be grateful for, since as a lecturer he doesn't get paid extra for them, anyway. Newly Graduated Student will therefore have four classes and I will have two.

Which, while maybe a little unfair, is the best situation for everyone. And I am glad to be in a department that cares so much about their new graduates. Really. I've been thinking for a while that I should write a post about how much I like the supportive and friendly atmosphere of our department. And I will write one, just as soon as I finish sulking.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Monday, Pun Day.

(1) Student: "Would you mind turning off that extractor fan, so we can hear properly?
Lecturer: "You're right, it is rather exhausting."

(2) Junior faculty member talking with HOD about an upcoming conference: "I think I'm going to present my analysis of those older texts where I look at how the words and phrases in question were really used. Despite all the big ideas people keep waving around, there's a gap in the literature when it comes to the hard data, and I might be able to provide that perspective."
HOD: "I guess that's why they call it fill-hole-ogy*".

(3) Geekman: "Do you want the computer?"
Me: "No, I was actually thinking about reading a book."
Geekman: "That's novel."

*Say it a few times out loud while lying back and thinking of linguistics.


(1) Geekman and I ran into a friend on Friday, who promptly broke into a chorus of "I wish I was a little mollusc..." I hadn't realised this friend had been reading my blog. It was fun watching Geekman's face reflect the interesting scenarios he must have been coming up with to account for this friend knowing just what he had been singing to himself in the shower.

(2) Two of my three supervisors, who previously have not even demonstrated that these words are in their vocabulary, have mentioned blogs and blogging to me in the past week. Just in passing.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

E bro, don't diss my language

This proposal to change the spelling of the town name "Wanganui" to "Whanganui" has been generating a lot of debate in the New Zealand news recently. Whanga in Maori means "harbour", therefore Whanganui = "big harbour". Wanga, on the other hand means "a bunch of white fellas weren't listening carefully when they transcribed this word into their sucky spelling system".

I acknowledge that my over-privileged position as a middle-class white chick might be preventing me from truly understanding the situation. But I'm finding it hard to see what all the fuss is about. Since the Latin alphabet is an imposition of Pakeha culture anyway, why is it worse to write "Wanganui" than it is to write "Whanganui"? Especially seeing as the spelling "wh" implies that there are two phonemes happening here, rather than one sound (which I can't represent because I don't have the IPA font I usually use available on this computer). The same with "ng", when it comes down to it.

I do not agree, however, with the people who compare this to cases like the corruption of (originally Norse) place names in England, so that places like Mikilhryggr turned into Meiklerig. People of non-Viking ancestry do not have advantages in English society over those descended from Vikings, therefore no one sees it as "symbolic" that the Norse meanings of these words are no longer visible. The drive to change Maori place names to a more appropriate spelling is more analogous to the recent changing of the South African place name "Triomf" back to the older "Sophiatown".

I've also been expecting people to come up with the objection that if we have to change originally Maori names back to the appropriate spelling, then Maori who are named Irihapeti, Hone, and Maaka should have to change their names back to Elizabeth, John and Mark, respectively. I haven't seen anyone suggest this yet, but for similar reasons to the above argument about Norse place names, it wouldn't be a valid analogy.

What I also don't understand, though, is why any of the residents of Whanganui/Wanganui care if the name does get changed. It's just a name. No one is going to stop them pronouncing it however they want. And it's not like English spelling and pronunciation is consistent at the best of times, so if people keep saying "Wanganui" but writing "Whanganui", who will notice or care?

This is a by-product of being a linguist that I have noticed before. Words to us linguisticky-type people are just words. Most linguists can't get themselves worked up about "abuse of the language" or misspellings to the same extent that the (wo)man on the street does. Letters are tools for making words. You can use them how you like. They aren't sacred. You won't lose your language* just because you spell some words inconsistently.

I think this is similar to something else I've noticed recently. There seems to be a correlation between how much people use printed material on a daily basis and how much they revere it. Academics tend to belong to the ranks of those who scribble in the margins of their books, highlight directly onto photocopies of articles, fold corners of pages over, and dump texts all over their office floors. Your average guy on the street who reads one book every few months is more likely to replace it carefully on the shelf, be horrified at penciled-in notes in the margins, and even wash his/her hands before touching a book (I saw someone do that recently, and they were horrified I don't).

But back to the Maori place name debate. It's summed up for me in the implications of Tania Turia's remark that "The name is meaningless unless spelt Whanganui". The real problem, you see, is that no matter how the name is spelt, it is meaningless to most Pakeha (and a good number of Maori). I reckon that Maori and the public's perception of Maori would benefit a good deal more if people would take the energy and effort they are putting into getting outraged about place name (mis)spellings and channel it instead into educating people about the Maori language in general.

* A
language, on the other hand, can, and maybe should, be sacred to a community as an expression of their identity and repository of their history. But it's the existence of the language that matters here, and how much it is used, not the way individual words are spelled or whether there has been linguistic change or not.

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Good thing I wasn't really trying to be anonymous anyway

I've just forwarded an email to myself from the account that I use to reply to comments on this blog and discovered that it prefaces my (anonymous) email address with my real name. I feel so stupid for not noticing this before.

So anyway, those of you who know, just keep on keeping it to yourselves :)

And I think I'll set up a pseudonymous gmail address for future use. And give up any thought of a future career as an undercover agent.

Outsmarted by my own subconscious

I dreamed last night I was in Norway. Now, I've never been to Norway, but in my dream my mind managed to have everyone speaking a language that was enough like Danish* that I got the gist of it, but different enough that I kept having to ask people to repeat themselves, as well as generating a dialect form (for the hunch-backed elderly train-conductor character) that, while it sounded nominally Danish-like, I couldn't understand at all.

How does a brain do that?

Geekman would say it doesn't, since he adheres to the theory that you don't experience dreams as you remember them anyway. He claims to have read studies that show that people woken up after less than two seconds of REM sleep will recite a long complicated narrative that they couldn't possibly have dreamed in that amount of time. He argues that this shows we just dream in rapid unconnected snapshots that we unconsciously piece together into a coherent whole after waking. I always reply that if our brains can piece these into a narrative in the second between waking and "remembering" the dream, then they could have created these narratives in the few seconds of REM sleep too. But I usually lose this argument.

Anyway, on waking, I could actually remember word for word the question a fellow passenger in this Norwegian train had just asked me, so I know my mind really was using actual Danish and Swedish words. But somehow it was generating sentences that I was finding hard to understand.

Outsmarted by my own brain first thing in the... um... morning.** Grumble.

*My day-time brain knows that spoken Norwegian is more like Swedish than Danish, but since my Danish is much better than my Swedish, I guess my brain went for the easy option. Lazy even in sleep :)

**I only just woke up, hence it
must be morning. And you are on the other side of the world anyway and won't realise what a decadent time of day it is here, you internet, you.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Geekman's plan for the day

"We could slather ourselves in sunscreen, don broad-brimmed floppy Mexican hats and scurry out into the sunshine to catch spiders.
[Moment of realisation]
Actually sombreros aren't floppy, are they? So we'd have to invent floppy Mexican hats first, but that's okay, because I bet they'd be best sellers."

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Some things I'd like to say to my brother (but won't)

Dear Little Bro,

Today on the phone Mum told me that you've decided to enrol in university. I'm so glad that you've figured out what to do this year, since it didn't work out with the job, or those courses at the community college that you dropped out of, or those other jobs you lost the year before. Still, I have to admit the university thing is a path I wasn't expecting you to take.

Mum said that you finally figured out that you aren't stupid. I'm glad of that. Your friends and family have known it for a long time. You said you just kind of gave up on education right back at the start of high school, and didn't reckon it had any relevance to your life. I guess that explains why you stopped doing your homework and never passed any exams; why you dropped out of school at sixteen. I never really understood that, seeing as I know you are smart when you want to be.

The thing is, I'm kind of scared for you. I see situations like yours often enough now that I'm on the other side of the fence. Students who have the brains for a university education, but not the skills. And professors really don't like it. They get grumpy when they are handed essays that are obviously composed by people who've never written anything before in their lives. They can be snarky when students don't keep up with the reading. (I'm sure you intend to keep up, but it'll take more time and effort for you than for most, not having read a book since you were eight years old.)

I'm guessing that you really do plan to make the effort this time around, and I do believe that you can do it, but the reason I'm scared for you is that your success will depend so much on the luck of the draw. If you get professors and tutors who have the time and will make the effort to look closely at you, to realise you have potential, and who go out of their way to guide you, then yes, you'll probably be okay. If, instead, you end up with the sort who are campaigning against that law that allows anyone over the age of 20 to attend university no matter what their (lack of) qualifications, they might see you as a poster-case for their disapproval of the system, and you could find yourself cut down at every step. Even if you just get the harried, tired professors and tutors who have too many students and too many responsibilities, you could so easily fall through the cracks.

I've cursed students like you and wished them back to high school. I'm ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I've given up on them too. When the first essay arrives and it's obvious that to help them pass I'm going to have to guide them from IM-speak through to an understanding of elementary English and grammar, teach them critical thinking from scratch, and then put in extra time and effort teaching them the course material on top of all that, I've sometimes decided that's not my job (or been afraid I wasn't up to the challenge) and accepted the fact that they'll fail. The thing is, when I've looked at them in the past, I've never looked closely enough to see you inside. This semester I kind of suspect it might be different.

The other thing that worries me is that you might be choosing this path for the wrong reasons. Because it's not going to be easy to make it through, your motivation has got to be strong enough to keep you going. I knew I wanted a university career more than anything else (there was no anything else) and that was what kept me afloat on the days when it wasn't any fun. But for me, that wasn't very many days. For you -- well I never got the impression that learning for the sake of it was really your thing. Mum says you are doing this because you want to get a job that isn't a dead-end pizza delivery run. So I have to ask: if it's about the job market, why are you majoring in Religious Studies?

Forgive me for finding your choice of major suspicious. But since you can't be doing it from career motives, then what? You were always the openly atheist one (while I hid away in my hypocritical closet. You were right to call me on that, by the way.) What worries me is the thought that this might be about fitting in. That was actually my first thought before I even heard what your major was. After all, you are the only one of us who never went to university. You are the only one who was openly non-religious. You're right, you know, when you point out that everything isn't always about me, but I'm scared that this might be (as well as about the Parents). I know you've been struggling with your identity, and that your biological mother coming back into your life has only made that harder. I've watched you the last few years, moving in with Her, then back to Mum and Dad, then back to Her. Doing what She wants. Doing what Mum and Dad want. Doing what She wants. Doing what They want.

You need to do what you want. And I really hope against hope that that's what you're doing now. If you are, then I support you 100%.

You know what the weirdest thing is, though? This is the first time in our lives that I've really felt like I imagine a big sister should. I've practically come over all maternal! I want to protect you and guide you and smooth out your path ahead of you. There is so much you will gradually discover in your first few years at university that I want to explain in one big monologue for you right now (bet you'd love that). I want to test-drive your professors and tutors and make sure they're up to scratch. And most of all, I want to tell them how important you are, how they have to go the extra mile for you, because you are worth it.

Maybe these protective feelings (and the hope and excitement I'm nursing on your behalf) have turned up because this is the first thing you have done in your life that I can really identify with. And if that's the case, then I'm sorry. I've been telling you you don't need to go to university to "fit in" with our family, to make us care. But me feeling this way about your decision -- even the fact that I'm writing to you now for the first time in nearly two years -- it looks like it might not be you who's deceiving yourself. It might be me. Maybe it is all about me after all.

I'm so sorry.

Maybe convict ancestry has long-term consequences

One thing about this town creeps me out a little. It's the set of questions that people here ask each other when they meet for the first time:

"How long have you been here?"

"What made you come here?"

"How long are you here for?"

Every time I hear this set of questions I start to wonder whether I'm actually in prison and just haven't noticed it. Especially the second one, which sounds a lot like "What are you in for?".

It's as though there's these assumptions that (a) no one was born here (b) no one would come here of their own free will, and (c) everyone is planning to leave just as soon as they get the chance. Assumption (a) is true enough, as far as I can tell. I've never met anyone who claims to have been born and grown up in this town. Assumption (b) is also true for a lot of people. The typical answers to question (2) are "For university", "I got a job in government/the military", or "My partner got a job here". And assumption (c) is supported by the way this place empties itself of people every weekend and public holiday -- it's like they just can't wait to be somewhere else.

Incidentally, it's not just me being asked these questions because I talk funny and am obviously not Australian. I've often overheard pairs of Australians at parties asking each other the exact same things.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

You know you want to see more parrots. Yes you do.

This little guy (or gal) was sitting in the tree right outside my office most of the afternoon. It's the first time I've seen a king parrot so clearly -- usually they hang out right at the tops of trees and since they aren't, let us say, as vocal as most of the other sorts around here, they're often really hard to spot.

This one really brightened up an otherwise extremely trying afternoon.

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So maybe I can stay here forever after all

After my post about not wanting to have to leave here when Geekman's contract runs out, I have at least seen some signs that no one is likely to kick us out in a hurry...

There is a guy down the corridor from me who graduated in the middle of last year. The strange thing is, although he isn't employed by the university, his name is still up on his office door and he's in there day and night. I'm starting to wonder if he's moved in permanently. It would save on rent, at least.

Admittedly this department seems a little slow at reallocating offices. There's a name-plate on an office here that apparently still belongs to someone who has been dead for over two years now.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

It has begun

Knock knock knock.

No reply.

I get up and open the door. There is a lost-looking first-year hunched nervously outside the office.

"I was wondering if you can tell me where my French tutorial is..."
"Classes don't actually start until next week, I think. Tutorials not until the week after that. And French is one floor higher. This is linguistics."
"Oh. Well can you tell me which tutorial I'm in, then?"
"For French?"
"Um... no."

Morning angstiness

Why is it that whenever a professor gets to telling you about their dissertation, way back in the good old days, they claim to have written it
(a) in the final three months of their candidature
(b) while dealing with a new baby, new job and/or relationship break-up
(c) while standing on their head, in a burning building, and simultaneously breaking three world records in underwater skiing.
(Okay, I made that last one up).

Could it just be that the intervening years make them remember the process as quicker and less fraught than it actually was?
Were dissertations back then shorter or expected to be less polished? (Admittedly a few of these people did their PhD in the USA, where I have heard the PhD thesis is a smaller piece of work than it is here).
Or could it be that the sort of people who go on to work in academia after their thesis is complete are the brilliant but easily distracted ones with a tendency to rush work through at the last minute before a deadline?

Is there no hope for the plodding perfectionist?

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Please, can I play too?

I just discovered today that the new semester beginning this week was entirely a figment of my overly caffeinated imagination. This week is merely "Bush Week" (the origin of which term is lost in the mists of too many late night drinking sessions). Classes don't actually start until the 20th, and I'm not teaching until the week after that. So I have found myself with an entire student-free week that I didn't know I had (which I am therefore proceeding to waste as only someone with unexpected extra research time can do).

I'm not the only one confused about semester dates, however.

Rumours abound, in an aboundy sort of way, that our Vice Chancellor is campaigning to move the university onto approximately the same annual schedule as the USA and Europe so successfully run on. Presumably he is planning to persuade the powers that be to rearrange the seasons to suit. Because, you know, our students paying clientele are going to be more than a little bit snarky if they end up with weeks of freedom in the middle of the winter when it's too cold to leave the house, and classes all through the sleepy summer months when they want to be lazing around with their friends down by the lake.

The obvious advantage to this schedule change, on the other hand, is that those who are required to teach might actually be able to attend conferences and summer schools in the Northern Hemisphere, which currently almost always fall during our teaching periods.

But a corresponding disadvantage that just about no one mentions is that faculty here will no longer be able to attend conferences in the Southern Hemisphere. Yes, on the whole, these are the smaller, less important ones. But given the meagre amount of funding available to staff who wish to attend conferences ($250 per year), most can afford to go to one or two local meetings per year, while trips to the Northern Hemisphere are paid for out of their own pockets and are correspondingly infrequent.

But what really slacks me off here is that I suspect that a major motivation behind this desire to match our Northern colleagues' schedules is not practical at all, but simply the optimistic hope that copying the external characteristics of the top overseas universities will mean that we're allowed to play in the big boys' league (hence also our current reorganisation from departmental lines to a "college" structure à la Oxford or Cambridge).

Somebody needs to have a chat with our VC. Something about clothes and maketh and man. And the inadvisability of putting too much faith in clichés.

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So he's not going to let me set a trap, is he?

We have mouse!

Scuttle scuttle scuttle across my foot and it went behind the bookcase. Then scuttle scuttle scuttle and it scurried out the door onto the balcony. Whereupon Geekman spent the next half hour searching for it, because "it might freeze to death out there all night".

Ahem. It's a mouse. Wild animal, welcome to the outdoors. Outdoors, meet wild animal. And it's summer. Not to mention, what's he going to do if he finds it, give it a warming cuddle and keep it by the toaster?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Homeric Greek for fun and profit

I agree with Kelly over at Bark at the Hole that there ought to be the equivalent of the Global Ideas Bank for those "someone should really do a study on this" moments.

Well, I think that someone should do a study on little trading ecosystems that develop in small (non-financially motivated) groups. Actually, they probably already have. But I'm too tired (read: lazy) to do a trawl through the economics and/or sociology literature such a thing would be hiding out in.

I think it's a pretty interesting topic, all the same. Case in point: the Homeric reading group I attend. There are four little trading systems that have sprung up among this group of approximately 15 people. The first is a widespread and fairly official one, whereby everyone who isn't a student contributes a dollar or two per session to a central fund which is then used to help classics students attend conferences and so on.

Then there's a not-for-much-profit thing organised by one of the elderly men, who photocopies each week's lines and enlarges them to sell to the other elderly group members who find it hard to read the small print found in most editions. He charges $1 per 100 lines, which means he probably makes a few dollars profit per week.

One of the women in the group has an enormous lemon tree in her garden, and brings in bucketfuls of lemons every few weeks. These are offered for free, but with the implicit obligation that takers will bring in samples of anything tasty they bake using these freebies.

Finally, one enterprising group member makes pots of marmalade (possibly with the help of some of these "free" lemons) and brings in five or six pots to sell each week. I think they are bought by people who take pity on her, mainly.

Each of these little subsystems is kind of surreptitious, in that it doesn't intrude on the actual meeting time, but takes place through furtive exchanges of coins and mysterious assignations in the corridor before or after the session. A newcomer to the group would probably take a few sessions to become aware of any of them at all.

Presumably these little black economies have sprung up organically, and perhaps the existence of each one makes the next more likely to arise. If we hadn't had the semi-officially sanctioned students' conference fund, I wonder if the marmalade woman would ever have considered hawking her wares? And I wonder to what extent these sorts of trading circles help cement the group and give people a feeling of being a part of more than just a circle of like-minded Homer freaks...

What I learned in school today

It is impossible to do an exploding timtam surreptitiously.

And having to excuse myself from a departmental meeting in order to wipe melted chocolate off my face and shirt is not going to help me develop a reputation for competence and professionalism.

Because a week without cockatoos is a week without an alarm clock on steroids

There was a cockatoo convention outside our house this morning, bless their fluffy white hearts. Besides these three monsters delights, I counted 12 more on the tree across the road.

(In case you didn't realise, this is an apology for that rather icky picture of my sunburn). Posted by Picasa

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Grrr. Haircuts

Like ShrinkyKitten, I hate going to the hairdresser. At least I don't have to worry about how much to tip, seeing as most Australians would probably faint in shock if you tried to tip them. And the looking at myself with wet hair doesn't happen, because I can't see a thing once I take my glasses off. But every other moment of the process is filled with pure pain and loathing. Take, for example, my visit a few days ago.

"I'd just like a trim, please. I loved what you did last time and I'd like it cut back to the same length."
"Your colour is still looking pretty, dear."
"Yes, I don't need the colour redone today. It was only eight weeks ago that I was in here last. I made a New Year's resolution to get my hair cut regularly this year." I smile smugly.
"Yes. Well, I suppose you can cheat and get away with eight weeks between cuts now and then. You've got a lot of regrowth for only eight weeks, though".
"It really was exactly eight weeks ago," I reply, more defensively than I intend to. "My hair must grow fast. And I can't afford to get the colour redone this time round."
"Hmm... well maybe a good cut can hide it."
"I just want a trim. See how long the regrowth is? I want that much off."

Cut cut cut cut snip snip snip.

"How's that?"
"Um... Have you cut the back yet?"
"You did say you just wanted a trim, so I took off the smallest amount possible."
"Well, as you pointed out, the regrowth from last time is four or five centimetres, so I need about that much off to bring it back to how it was."
"Well, I suppose it's my fault, really. I should have asked you how much you wanted off. Hrmph."

Cut cut cut cut snip snip snip.

I put on my glasses again and look in the mirror. "Eeep!"
"I suppose it's too short now?"
"Erm. That's... fine. Thank you."

At the counter. "Shall I add another bottle of that nice shampoo to your bill?"
"No, thank you. I still have some left from the last lot I bought."
"But that was nearly a year ago!"
"Well as you said, I don't need to use very much..."
"If you say so."

Then, as always, she charges me a random amount of money that has no bearing on the price she quoted me when I made the appointment. It only varies by about $5 either way, and her prices are still way cheaper than anything I'd find off campus, so it's not worth making a fuss about. Especially since she always has a reason ready the times I have mentioned it. Nor are the random haircuts worth changing hairdresser for, since although she never gives me what I ask for, what she does do always ends up looking pretty anyway.

But GRRR! It always takes me about six hours after each visit before I calm down and stop grinding my teeth.

Oh, oh, and before I finish ranting, how about this?

On my first visit "...and I'd like a bit of layering around the back."
"Now dear, with hair as fine as yours, you should never get it layered. It will make it look like there's even less of it."

At the next visit, a few months down the track. "How about I give you a few layers to add a bit of volume?"

Replying to comments. Email or in-thread replies?

I've recently realised that it seems to be considered good etiquette in the blogging world to reply to comments by email instead of in the comment thread. This makes sense, but unlike a lot of blogs, Blogger doesn't ask people to give their email address when posting a comment, so it isn't easily visible for me to reply to.

Then when I saw a couple of days ago that Improbulus had made the effort to come over to my blog and look for an email address to reply to a comment of mine, I started to wonder if I should be doing that too.

So the last couple of days I've been replying to people's comments by email as well as in the comments thread. On the other hand, I don't want them to feel I'm stalking them. Or that they need to reply to my emails (unless they really want to).

So what to do, what to do? Any thoughts? Preferences?

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The place that sunscreen forgot

There's always one. (Note the nice fingermarks at the top left.)

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

I heart hyperwords

This extension for Firefox (seen on Julie's blog) is just incredible. I think I'm in love.

Highlighting a word on any web page puts you one click away from searching for it, tagging it, emailing it, blogging it, translating it, buying it, or looking it up in a dictionary, map or on Wikipedia.

The only problem I have with it is that, once you've installed the extension, I don't think there's any way you can highlight a word without getting Hyperwords to activate the menu. And if you highlight a word or phrase from right to left, the menu appears directly over the word, making it difficult to see what you are doing if you have highlighted it in order to replace or retype it, rather than because you want to use Hyperwords.

Update: actually there is. I take it back. At the bottom of the menu is an item called "hyperwords" which, when highlighted, gives you "preferences", under which you can select whether the menu turns up every time you highlight a word or only if you press an extra key as well. I should have looked more thoroughly (but I did read the user manual, and there was nothing about this there!)

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Don't make me! I don't wanna!

I had one of those afternoons yesterday where everything I saw tugged at me and made me sad and nostalgic. Even the cracks in the pavement called to me accusingly, knowing I wasn't going to sit myself down with them and wait for moss to grow.

The trigger was a meeting with my supervisor in which she asked the forbidden question. "How much longer does your husband have now on his contract?"

At the moment it's officially only until December. He's been assured he can extend the job until the middle of next year, but we can't be certain the visa people will be equally happy with that arrangement.

It's the longest contract he's had so far, so at the start it seemed like an unbelievable stretch of time here lay ahead of us. For the first time ever we allowed ourselves to buy furniture, sign 24 month contracts for the lease, for phone and internet. We buy books and sometimes nice things for the house without worrying about how we'll ship them to another country. But now the end is all too easy to see.

The main problem is how blank the time after the end of the contract is. People maybe assume that we will be "going home" at the end of our time here. But I don't really know where home is any more.

It's been nearly seven years since I last lived in New Zealand. Nine years for Geekman. And he's not a NZer according to his citizenship, anyway. If he was deported from Australia he'd be sent to Sweden, a place where he barely speaks the language, knows no one except his aunts, uncles and cousins, and has not lived in since he was six years old.

The last place we lived was Denmark. I feel as at home there as anywhere and I'd love to go back. But they only have one university with departments in both Geekman's field and mine, so our chances of getting work there are nearly as bad as they are in NZ (where not a single university has a group working in Geekman's area of physics).

Realistically, our chances of both getting work within commuting distance of each other are probably best in Germany. At least we both speak the language fluently and are comfortable with the culture and university system. I'm not sure I really want to live there again, but we can't afford to be fussy. The States would be another option, except that I've heard the visa/residency thing there is well-nigh impossible...

For now, it's something we try not to think about too much. I'm sick of moving. I'm 25 years old and have lived in 19 different houses; 11 different cities; four different countries. I've had enough for now.

Do you think if I chain myself to the railings outside my house, the machinations of fate will give in and let us stay?

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Warning: sentimental cat post. Feel free to ignore.

I didn't used to have this problem, because my kitty would read my books for me.

I had to leave my Miez behind when I moved to Australia. Locking her away in quarantine for six months would not have been fair to her or me.

Of course, I never would have chosen to get a cat in Germany or Denmark, much as I longed for one. I knew I wasn't likely to be there forever. Miez was the result of spur-of-the-moment bad judgment of a flatmate of mine, who thought she wanted a cute little pet and then wasn't all that interested after the novelty wore off. The following year, said flatmate up and went to Berlin, leaving the cat behind. But by then I had been Miez's human for a long time anyway.

I was the one who taught her about the big, wide world. Her formative kitten-years had been spent as that truly German phenomon: the "house cat". She had never been allowed outside until she came to live with me. So I sat in the garden with Miez on my lap every day for nearly two weeks, until she finally stopped trembling and burying her head in my skirt for long enough to go exploring. (Make the big blue ceiling go away!) The first few days after that she would slowly creep a few metres from me, then flatten herself to the ground and yowl until I went to pick her up. She eventually got more confident, but it was a long time before she stopped ducking whenever a bird flew overhead.

Finally, though, Miez discovered what the outdoors was really for and started to bring home mice and birds. We had words about that. Especially after I came back after a two week trip away (a neighbour had been feeding her) to find a rotting, maggot-ridden pigeon in my bed.

But, you know, even thinking of that incident I feel nostalgic. I know she went to a good home. I knew the people -- I'd checked out the house and the area. But still I miss her. Every day. And when I came across this photo again today, I had myself a little sniffle.

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See StyleyGeek read. Read StyleyGeek, read!

The 29 books I currently have out of the library are all due back next week.

I've finally hit their renewing limit, which freaks me out a little, since it reminds me they've been sitting on my desk for nearly a year.

And what's worse is that it means I'm going to have to read some of these books, rather than relying on the usual method of hoping the information gets diffused into the air and absorbed through my skin by osmosis.

So far I've got as far as stacking them into pretty little piles.

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The conversion of a vehement sports-hater. Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the gym

As a kid at school, I always hated sport. I was the one who hid in a changing room toilet cubicle with a book, hoping my absence wouldn't be noticed. School sports days usually saw me doing the bare minimum at the slowest possible speed and scowling every minute of it. The Phys.Ed classes we had twice a week until I was sixteen dammit were like hell on earth.

Part of it was no doubt a general rebellion against being told what to do with my body (the fact that a lot of high school involved being told what to do with my mind never really registered until later). But mostly it was because all we ever did was running.

Or at least that's how it seemed. Warm up jogs around the field. Sprint races up and down the track. Punishment laps around the school for those of us who were caught taking short-cuts on the cross-country route. Once or twice a month we would play team sports instead. And while they had the advantages of more slacking-off time (I always wanted our team to field first), I got to experience the added embarrassment of always being the last one picked for a team. Which maybe had as much to do with everyone knowing I was more likely to do handstands in a corner than to play to win as it did with me being the geeky loser with no friends. But it still sucked.

I never really even "got" the satisfaction of being on the winning team. What was the point? Where was the extra knowledge or ability gained from all that hard work? Where was the extra A on the report card? (Yes, even then I was a big geek).

Because of the limitations of our school Phys. Ed. system, I never learned the important thing about me and sport. Which is that I don't, in fact, hate sports. I don't particularly suck at them, even. What I hate is running. What I suck at is team sports.

A couple of years ago I began to wonder if the only problems I had with sport were due to traumatic high-school memories. So I vowed to try the whole fitness thing again: to do it properly, think positively and give it a chance. Unfortunately, I still hadn't realised that there were more options available than cricket, rugby or running. So I bought good shoes, learned good technique, and ran every second day for two months. At the end of those two months I still wanted to cry every time I even thought about running. That's when I realised it maybe isn't the sport for me. (I know, I'm slow like that.)

So I started to do some (internet) research. And found literally dozens of sports that I thought sounded like -- wait for it -- fun! But you know, there were two things they all had in common: they were solitary, unconventional sports.

I love lifting weights. Beating my own records gives me motivation and rewards like nothing else (especially since I was so weak to start with the I managed to triple my weights within the first six months). In martial arts, there's nothing I love better than beating the crap out of a punching bag, practising kicks in front of the mirror, and repeating the patterns until I get them perfect (but I hate sparring). Rock climbing gives me an adrenaline buzz like nothing else. And I could happily practise archery for hours on end, day after day after day, if only I had the time.

I like the thought of doing something not everyone else has tried. And I can always push myself that little bit further, if the only one watching to mock if I fail or cheer if I succeed is me.

(Plus, the best thing about weight-lifting is that even if you are tempted to compare yourself to other people there you come out looking good, since most of the women there aren't even trying -- because they don't want to get all big and muscley, or ruin their make-up, or something -- and the men, having a natural testosterone advantage, just don't count.)

The amazing thing is that since I've been exercising regularly (three weight-lifting sessions a week, one dance class, and one rock climbing or, previously, Tae Kwon Do session), I've actually started to see those benefits that "They" tell you you'll get from being fit. The ones I never believed in as a teenager.

I feel less stressed and have fewer mood swings.
My body went all shaped and symmetrical (my, ahem, womanly arse didn't exactly disappear, but it goes better with broad shoulders and a large chest than it did with the stick figure I used to be).

And weirdest of all, although I haven't actually seen any studies showing that exercise strengthens your immune system, I used to catch every passing microbe and now I haven't been sick -- not even a cold or stomach bug -- in three years and five months.* How long have I been going to the gym now? Exactly three years now, wouldn't you know.


* Yes, I remember the exact date I last got sick. So would you if it was your wedding day and only illegally large amounts of medication were able to get you to the point where you just (barely) stagger down the aisle without coughing your lungs up.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

They'll be first against the wall when the evolution comes

I crashed into a lorikeet on my bicycle today. It didn't seem to be injured, although it flew off before I could check it out more closely. But seeing as how one crashed into me a little while ago (a split-second after I took the photograph below), I think that's probably balanced out my karma quite nicely.

But I mean, really, if you can fly, why are you trying to WADDLE out of the way of my bicycle?

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Geekman was singing to himself in the shower this morning:

"I wish I was a little mollusc
floating in the sea
I'd find myself a nasty shark
and bite it in the.... knee."

Usually he just makes "mughwmph, it's morning" noises.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Memo to self: breathe deeper

It's got to the time of year when I'm starting to get all panicky.

  • Classes start next week (although I don't start teaching until the week after). Oh, and ScaryLecturer has cleverly managed to schedule one of my classes for the one time in the week when I told him I couldn't do it.
  • I have to start lining up seminars for our department seminar series, which I mysteriously found myself in charge of part way through last year.
  • It's coming up to the deadline for people to get abstracts to me for the conference workshop I am organising (and no one has given me ANYTHING yet).
  • I have two conference abstracts to write and submit myself sometime in the next three weeks.
  • Travel and accomodation for said conferences needs to be booked (it would be embarrassing if I left it too late and couldn't get flights to the workshop I am in charge of).
  • The HOD came by today and asked me to review a book for our centre's newsletter. Due Monday. (So how much of the book do you think I actually need to read before I can write a review?)
  • That lecture I have to give later this semester? I just realised that, seeing as there are two streams of this course, I have to give it twice. Igh.
  • The writing is going S...L...O...W...L...Y.
It's not so much the amount of work that's bothering me here, because looked at objectively, it really isn't all that much. But almost every point on that list is SCARY.

So now I'm going to go and sit with a duvet over my head and tremble for a while. At times like these I find that helps.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I think I have a stalker

I had the weirdest experience on the way home today.

I was cycling along, head down, when another cyclist came up behind me and called, "Hey StyleyGeek, remember me?"

Well, I didn't. But, you know, I smiled nervously and did the "So what have you been up to lately" set of questions -- the ones that work no matter who the other person turns out to be.

It wasn't until she started speaking German that I was able, tentatively, to place her. And the more risks I took with my questions, the more my suspicions were confirmed.

This was someone I met when we were both 16 years old (nearly 10 years ago), and on a scholarship-sponsored trip to Germany. She was one of the three Australian scholarship winners and I was one of the two New Zealanders. So we hung out a bit over there, but it was only a six week trip, ten years ago. We haven't been in contact since.

And today she saw me from behind, wearing a cycle helmet, in the wrong context (read wrong country -- I never gave her reason at the time to think I might ever come to Australia), and yet she recognised me.

So, given I'm fairly interchangeable in terms of colouring and shape (tall, slim, blond) and people are always mistaking me for someone else, only one conclusion remains: This chick has been stalking me. Don'tcha think?

Maybe we've discovered George Bush's native language...

According to a list of Egyptian hieroglyphs I was looking at today, Ancient Egyptian uses the same ideogram for "enemy" as it does for "foreigner".

And the sign for "pertaining to" is a picture of a man with a sharp knife.

Much as I distrust the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I can't help thinking that Ancient Egypt would not have been a fun place to travel to on a diplomatic mission.

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A great tag-line seen on a forum post today

"Yo, yo. Word to your mother. Grammar to your siblings."

Thank you, Barnabus, for making me laugh so hard I fell off my chair.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Does anyone know a cure?

The disease known as "library swoon" is a scarcely documented syndrome commonly suffered by academics.

Symptoms: a sudden sweeping euphoria upon entering libraries followed by a floaty, detached feeling of "Books books BOOKS so many lots of them and all for me, yes for me!"*

My case of library swoon has been getting progressively worse. It's now at the point where even just looking at my reference list can induce an episode. This wouldn't matter so much (after all, the highs I've had from library swooning are better than those from any drug I've ever tried), except that it is more conducive to staring into space with a glazed, manic grin than it is to actually getting the necessary reading done.

*This illness has also been known to take a severe toll on grammatical ability and general coherence.

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Three random observations from today's workshop (on information management)

(1) Yay for courses at the military academy! All those men in uniform :)

(2) It doesn't exactly inspire confidence when the instructor teaching information management skills has misplaced his presentation notes, can't get his laptop to communicate with the projector and doesn't remember what he's done with the handouts.

(3) Somebody doesn't know his operating systems:
"Who uses a Mac? Five of you? Well, there's what, 25 people here... so 20 of you use Windows, then.

Uh, no.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut deutsch

I'm going to break my own guidelines here and post some hilarious sentences from a first-year German exam I once supervised. I came across them again when sorting through old files on my computer today. Although I feel uncomfortable in general about posting verbatim from students' work, this exam was quite a while ago now, and I doubt if any of the students would recognise their work even if they stumbled across it somehow.

The sentences are from short essays the students had to write about a trip they had been on. English translations are included where translatable, but the originals are way funnier.

(1) Das Essen in Moskau war sehr schwierig aber lecker.
"The food in Moscow was very difficult but tasty". [schwierig = difficult; schwer = heavy].

(2) Es war so teuer dass meine Creditkarte hat kaputt gegangen.
"It was so expensive that my credit card broke".

(3) Der Kellnerin war faul und schlank.
"The waitress was lazy and slim".

(4) In an essay about a trip to Germany: Es war grau und regeln.
"It was grey and rules".
(A freudian slip, perhaps?) [regnen = to rain; Regeln = rules]

(5) Sie ist die schmeckesten Essen in der Univers! Sehr lacher.

(6) One student, instead of Meeresfrüchte, kept writing Seeobst.

(7) Another must have mixed up scheiß ("shit") and Schweiz ("Swiss"), because he wrote after describing a really bad experience (that had nothing to do with Switzerland): Es war ganz schweiz ("It was really Swiss") and then about a slightly better evening: Das war nicht so
schweiz ("That was not so Swiss").

(8) And finally, I think it's relevant that this excerpt is from an essay by a Japanese student (about her trip to the beach): In das Meer war 3 oder 4 Blauwal. Ich liebe Meeresfrüchte, so diesem Blauwal war am schönsten.
"In the sea were three or four blue whales. I love seafood, so these blue whales were the best."

I think that (2) and (3) say something interesting about the way people handle limits imposed by lack of vocabulary when speaking a foreign language. Presumably the students knew that they were not quite expressing themselves the way they wanted to, but for (2) it was obviously important to get across the message that the cost of the meal was so high it caused him problems when paying, and there was only one type of problem he was able to express: something being broken. And for (3), I guess she was trying to describe the waitress and probably only knew maybe six or seven adjectives to choose from, so used all that applied.

Examples like these show how hard it is for someone to get their real personality across when speaking a language they aren't yet fluent in. Often it even results in the listener getting a false impression of the speaker as unintelligent, or even humourous, when this isn't intentional. (And from personal experience, I'd say that once you have been the "entertaining foreigner", the good sport who's always happy to laugh at yourself and joke about your accent, it's very difficult to move on from this persona once you do become proficient in the language.)

I sometimes wonder how many problems of racism would be solved just by making it compulsory for everyone to spend some time in a country where they can only barely speak the language so they can see the situation from the other side of the fence? I vaguely remember seeing a proposal a few years ago to send German youths convicted of Neo-Nazi hate crimes on an exchange programme to Turkey. I don't think it ever got underway, though. More's the pity.

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The dinosaurs live!

Or so I thought when I saw this video clip. A colleague from uni filmed it out at her parents' farm last weekend.

It's a goanna, a type of monitor lizard, and yes, it's as big as it looks -- around 1.5 metres long (5ft or so). These things like hanging out up trees, which is a bit scary. And they wander around quite happily on their hind legs. They can even run two-legged.

All I can say is *wow*.

(You need to click on the blue link to get the file, not on the picture. And sorry about the combination of large file size and crappy quality. The clip is about 2 MB. I had compression issues.)

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Sometimes I think he's feeding me lines

Me, frothing: "Blogger is down again. I hate it so much."

Three minutes pass.

"I take it back. That wasn't Blogger. That was our internet connection. I hate our internet."

Geekman: You have a lot of unresolved anger there. Maybe you should take up martial arts or something."

Me: "I did. Hated it."

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Friday, February 03, 2006

The Tutor and the Beast. Part whatever-we've-got-up-to-now.

An update on the case of the book-napped textbook.

A fellow PhD student who works down the corridor from me came by today to tell me that she was SO EXCITED because she was going to sit in on the Intro courses that I was tutoring, and that meant she would be IN MY TUTORIALS! (She spoke all of this with capital letters, as she does most of the time, so don't blame me).

Point (1): If she really needs to revisit introductory linguistics courses, don't you think she might be better off doing her PhD in another discipline? Like one that she's actually studied?

Point (2): I am so not going to cope with having this woman in my course. Five minutes of her company exhausts me at the best of times, and also I think I am going to feel shy about manifesting my classroom persona in front of her.

Point (3): She came to talk to me about the textbook we are using. She has a second-hand copy (last year's edition) so wanted me to show her what the differences were between that and the edition we are using. So I opened it to the chapter with the biggest differences, to find... my penciled-in notes, in my handwriting. Further questioning found that ScaryLecturer had given her the textbook. She has my textbook.

Point (4): She has my textbook.

Point (5): She has my textbook.

Point (6): Grumble.

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The unhelpfulest helper of all

The HOD gate-crashed my meeting today. Friday afternoons is his time for prowling the corridors, coffee cup in hand, looking for someone to chat to. I guess he didn't find anyone today, because he continued into the tea-room, took a look at the other academic and me poring over papers and files and made himself comfortable in the chair beside us. "So you're having a planning meeting for [conference workshop we are organising], are you? Splendid! How's it all going?"

HOD's input might actually have been welcome, given his phenomenal memory for people he has met and their research projects, and also his much greater experience with running these sorts of things. Unfortunately he is the last person you want to have at any meeting with time constraints (ie. any meeting). He loses the thread, gets sidetracked onto "more interesting" topics, and is oblivious to subtle hints that people are trying to wind things up.

So we were trying to come up with a list of names of people who we will send individual invites to, i.e. well known people who are likely to be in Australia in July, and whose main research interests are in the field of syntactic change, which is the workshop's theme. HOD was extremely... prolific in his suggestions. Unfortunately almost all of them were completely impractical.

"Now you should really invite [names famous researcher]. He'll be around in July, and he's done some excellent work lately. Yes. His email address is [gives address]. Tell him I said hi."
Waits while I write all this down.
"Oh, now I come to think about it, he's never done any work on syntactic change."

"But someone who does a lot of very sound syntactic stuff is [names second famous researcher]. He's an excellent presenter too. Just the sort of person you want to have. Of course, he will be on field work in Greenland this July, though."

Finally HOD really out-did himself:

"Oh, oh, and have you thought of [third famous researcher]? His work on syntactic change is among the best in Australia. Yes, fantastic work... And he'd love a conference like this..."
Pauses while I add the name to my list.
"It's a shame he's dead, really."

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

How much heat can a koala bear?

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Somebody emailed me these today. Supposedly taken during the current heat-wave in Adelaide. It's like I said: "In Australia, where there's water, there's wildlife". And yes, I know these pictures are probably photo-shopped or faked, but they are just too cute not to blog.

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Why do I always attract the crazies?

The guy attending the "special" workshop series in his head was at today's seminar as well. Unfortunately, he somehow decided I was his new best friend. So when we were asked to pair up and brainstorm the main characteristics of the best dissertations, my new special friend gave me a five minute monologue on the historical consequences of the tension between the scientific method and monastic scholarly tradition. So spectacularly off-topic it was almost funny. (His thesis topic is something to do with engineering, so it wasn't even that he was discussing that).

At morning tea time the same guy was telling me all about his difficulties finding friends who understand him (hmmm... I wonder why?), and how hard it is to be a student enrolled in Melbourne, with a supervisor in Queensland, and physically located here (so why is he doing it this way, exactly?). I was incredibly grateful to be "rescued" from this conversation by another guy who wanted to tell me all about his dissertation topic. Turns out his background is in International Relations, but he is studying transcripts of conversations using what he called "Chomsky's theory of discourse analysis". Self-taught, of course. I tried to pin him down on what exactly he thought this theory was (and to mildly suggest he might like to look at Conversation Analysis or something that, you know, actually exists) but he wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise.*

Then, trying to extricate myself from that conversation, I pushed my way into the immediate vicinity of a plump, elderly woman who had a nice smile. Upon which, she immediately began trying to convert me.

Am I sending out some sort of signal, people?

* Why is it that random people off the street always think that, because they speak a language, they are automatically qualified as linguists? I mean, I have teeth, but I don't go around offering to perform dental surgery.

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The best-laid schemes of StyleyGeeks gang aft agley

I had another workshop to attend from 9--12 this morning, this time at a university out of cycling range, and I put a lot of forethought into transport related issues .

Yesterday I left my bicycle at university, cadged a lift to yesterday afternoon's workshop off a friend, got her to drop me home instead of back at uni, and this morning I drove to the second workshop and home again afterwards.

I'm wearing a long skirt today, which I don't often do because it's a problem when cycling. But I'm going climbing at the gym before I go home from uni today, which means I'll change into shorts anyway, and since I left my bicycle there, I'll only be cycling on the way home, so it works out wonderfully.

Confused yet? I must have been, since in the midst of congratulating myself on such a nicely worked-out plan, it never once crossed my mind that this plan would leave me doing the 40 minute walk from home to university AT MIDDAY IN 35 DEGREE TEMPERATURES (95 F for those of the imperial persuasion). I can't drive because I don't have a campus parking permit (can't justify the expense when I live so near).

Fuckit. (Yes, that is the sum total of my well-considered analysis of the situation. Thank you.)

UPDATE: I did, in fact, nearly die on that long walk of doom. Or felt like I did, anyhow. There was almost no shade, because (1) it was midday-ish, and (2) the trees in Australia don't really bother with the whole leaf-thing much, since they never get enough water to make it worth the upkeep. My water bottle was full of iced water when I left the house, and the little that was left when I reached uni was hot to the touch. Oh, and don't wear sandals with soles that are black on the inside in Australia. You know when the asphalt is so hot it burns when you walk on it? Imagine that sort of feeling, but from something that is ATTACHED to your feet.

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