Friday, January 30, 2009

In a Bond-like feat of counter-intelligence...

What strikes me about this story—apart from the obligatory angle of OMG the SIS is spying on people!—is the following line:

The file continues to track Leadbeater's life, although the SIS lost track of her when she married and took her husband's name.
Awesome job, dudes. Note to self: in order to evade NZ's top intelligence people, just get married and change your name. SO SNEAKY!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How to spend nine hours doing five hours of work

I quite enjoy reading Dr Crazy's lists of things she works on in a day. Maybe it's because I'm nosy, or maybe it gives valuable insight into what it's like to be a real academic. Either way, I thought I'd show you what it's like to be a FAKE academic, in the form of detailing all the crap I did today.

But because I'm long-winded and incapable of not editorializing, you get the uncut version rather than the snappy List of Crazy.

Today I managed to land myself in a situation where I had to was privileged to be working for ALL of my bosses all in the one day. Yet despite beginning work at 9 and leaving reluctantly at 6:30, I only succeeded in getting through five hours of work I can actually bill anyone for. How does this happen? you may very well not actually ask because you aren't interested. But I will tell you anyway. Ha ha!

9:00–9:20: Waiting for one of the people I do research assistant work for (henceforth 'Boss #1'). He asked me to be there at 9am so we could get an early start. Despite not sleeping at all because of the horrible heat-wave we are having in my bedroom lately, I forced myself out of bed in time to make it (but only by skipping breakfast). Boss #1 waltzes in 20 minutes later, saying, "Wow, I just couldn't drag myself out of bed this morning. Must be the heat."

9:20–12 o'clock: I photocopy a 600-page book for Boss #1. It apparently doesn't occur to him that it costs him more to pay me to copy it than it would for him to just buy a copy (or steal the library copy and pay the 'lost book' fine). Nor does he seem concerned by copyright.

10:30–11am (yes, we did just go back in time here): Colleagues persuade me forcefully to come and have morning tea as a break from copying. Since they are all salaried, it does not occur to them that a half-hour break loses me nearly $20. But they are persuasive. There is coffee. And we actually talk about research, so it's not wasted time.

12–1 pm: Usually I take 30 minutes for lunch and/or eat at my desk while working. Today there is free lunch (!!!11!eleventy-one!) in honour of something Asian. Unfortunately the walk there and back, queuing for food, and talking to people there means I use a full hour for lunch. It does not occur to me until later that I could have bought a nicer lunch with the money I would have earned if I had worked that extra half hour instead of using it to seek out free food. Sigh.

1–1:30 pm: Boss #2 sends me to the library to hunt her down a journal article. I start with the online journal, but alas, the one issue I need is the only one since 1984 that they haven't digitised. Fortunately our library has it. Unfortunately it appears to be on the level that is undergoing repairs and I have to send a grumpy librarian into the roped-off depths to fetch it. Even more unfortunately it is not on the shelf and I have to submit an online request for them to look for it. Even more unfortunately, my library card no longer works all of a sudden.

1:30–2 pm: I try to work out what is wrong with my library card. The librarians try to work out what is wrong with my library card. Epic fail. Finally it is discovered that they accidentally overwrote my newer staff profile with the old (supposedly deleted) student profile. I am still weighing up whether I can bill Boss #2 for this period of time, since I wouldn't have had to get my card working if I weren't having to order her journal, but on the other hand, I still would have had to do it eventually.

2pm–3 pm: Ice cream break. I can't handle the heat. Yes, it's a long ice cream break. This is the one period of the day where the lack of productivity is truly and honestly all my own fault.

3pm–3:45 pm: I return to my office and find it writhing with what appears to be panicking ants. Presumably they are panicking because they have accidentally found their way into an OFFICE and there is NO FOOD. This doesn't, however, mean that they return the way they came. I sit down to do some work, but when the ants decide to undertake an epic journey of exploration into my cleavage, I am forced to take action. I spend the next half hour trying to find out who at the university is responsible for pest control. When I reach them, they assure me they will deal with it by next week. Awsumness.

3:45–4:45 pm: Work for Boss #3. This is so excrutiatingly boring I want to tear out my eyeballs, and I long for those good old days (this morning) of endless photocopying. Brief moment of levity thanks to an entry in a (senior!) academic's journal article's bibliography that actually says, "[Surname, First name]. File on my computer. 2009." I change it to "Unpublished manuscript".

4:45–5:45 pm: I suddenly realise that I haven't checked my email all day. Unfortunately doing so catapults me into an unexpected skirmish between Boss #3 and his publisher, who have been sending each other emails all day with increasing levels of hostility, and passive-aggressively CCing me in. I sort things out as best I can, but lose another 30 minutes to replying to emails that I can't, however creatively, bill any of my bosses for.

5:45–6:30 pm: Back to the eyeball-frying job for Boss #3. Eventually I gnaw off my own hands in a bid to get out of having to reformat a LaTeX manuscript into Word, and give up for the day, not having finished what I set out to accomplish.

In summary, the actual paid part of my day was 2.5 hours in the morning for Boss #1, half an hour at the library for Boss #2, and 2 hours 15 minutes in the afternoon for Boss #3. I was present and not-on-an-ice-cream-break for 9 1/2 hours, of which I get paid for 5 1/4.

Quick calculation: earnings for the day: $180 before tax.
If I earned minimum wage at McDonalds, I would have earned $136 (assuming I worked all 9.5 hours, which I guess I might not have, given an unpaid lunch break).
So that's at least a $46 advantage. Plus an ice cream break. Whew!

THIS is why I'm an academic. Good thing I remembered.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ah yes, people asking me to work for free: must be Wednesday

So I'm sitting in my office at 9:30 at night working because I have so much shit to do I am stressed out of my little treehouse, and a certain senior colleague drops by and makes himself comfortable on the edge of my desk.

"Hey, you know what's fun?" he asked. "If you're working in the evening, and you need to take a little break?"


"Well, you can go next door to the linguistics library, and do a bit of tidying. It's in a terrible state! And you know, with the budget cuts and all, we had to stop paying someone to organise it. So if we all just shelve a few books here and there when we're tired of working, it'll get back in shape in no time!"

He beamed at me. "You know what I did last night?" he continued. "When I'd shelved some books and tidied the tables, I chose a section, and I re-alphabetised it! Would you believe: someone had shelved Jones after Joseph, and Jenkins before Jamison! Anyway, I've done I–K, so feel free to take any of the other sections when you get a moment."

A rose by any other name...

We have an oldish, very polite British chap in our department who works on translation. He often goes around from office to office asking people what they think the precise difference in nuance is between various words, or whether a given word has a certain connotation for people of different generations. Today's encounter, however, made me laugh.

"Excuse me," he said, passing me in the corridor, "can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," I replied.
"Do you think there is any semantic difference between the words 'tosser' and 'wanker'?"

I had to think for a moment.

"If there's a difference," I eventually replied, "I think it's very slight. Maybe 'wanker' has more of a connotation of the person being stuck up, while 'tosser' is more of a general insult."
"Hmm..." he said, "Thank you. That's helpful."
"What on earth are you working on?" I asked, as he walked away.
"Oh!" he said, "It's not for my research. I'm writing a letter to the National Radio, and was trying to decide which I should call them."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Even professors can be special, special snowflakes

Me: "Okay, just to recap: you want me to standardise headings, figures, tables and example numbers; rewrite part one so that it actually makes sense*; check all the references; and make the formatting of the rest of the manuscript consistent?"

Prof: "That's right. Technically we should contact the people whose figures and images we are using and get copyright permission, but I don't have enough money to pay you to do that. It's cool, anyway: the publisher I'm using doesn't check that sort of thing."

Me: *gulp* "It wouldn't be too hard to contact them..."

Prof: "No no. This publisher was sued last year and it was fine. He just turned off the lights and hid under his desk until the lawyers went away. No one will bother trying again."

Me: "Yes, but—"

Prof: "So, about the formatting."

Me: "Right. Do you have a copy of the publisher's stylesheet I can take?"

Prof: "I've got one. But I don't like it. I think those styles are ugly. So we're going to ignore it. Here's how I like things formatted: [long list of weird-ass personal preferences]."

Me: "Don't you think the publisher will just reformat it to their own stylesheet anyway? So maybe we should just—"

Prof: "God no! They are far too lazy for that."

Me [thinks: and too busy being served with copyright infringement notices] "And what about the references?"

Prof: "Oh, whatever style you like. And don't waste time doing things like making sure they all have the same capitalisation or all have full stops after the date or anything. No one really cares about all that."

All I can say is that I'm going to make sure I get my money BEFORE this gets sent to the publisher, and then I'm going to run far far away. Also, for once, I DON'T want my name in the acknowledgments.


* Okay, so I didn't phrase it like that. But that's totally what she's asking me to do.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I totally swear I am not making this up even a little bit

We recently received the following email from our administrators:

Dear all,

For security reasons we are cataloging all weapons. Please advise if you keep knives, guns, blowtorches, explosives or similar in your offices.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In related news...

(Well, related to one of the random bullets, I'm sure), the publisher for my edited volume just contacted me to ask if I have any ideas for the cover! Whee!

Unfortunately, I suspect my initial thoughts (only in my head, never fear) of
(a) an epic battle between a giant squid and a fearsome white pointer shark
(b) pretty sparkly unicorns dancing in a meadow of flowers
would probably be rejected as 'inappropriate'. Pfft.

I at least need to specify a colour. This publisher has an unfortunate tendency of going with lime green or puke yellow if the author doesn't request anything different.

So what say you, wise readers? How do I come up with a sufficiently abstract yet attractive and not-stolen-from-anyone-else idea for the cover of a book about grammatical change?

Random bullets of 'If I don't blog in bullets I probably won't bother at all'

  • Geekman's new deodorant has a scent I have christened 'feral citrus'. (If you'd like to hire me for your marketing department, just shoot me an email.)
  • Actually, you should probably hire Geekman for your marketing department too. I can't get his marketing slogan for Super Cheap Auto* out of my head: 'More better faster. (Cheaper)'.
  • The advantage of there being no part time teaching budget whatsoever this year is that I don't get to have to, you know, like, teach. So I can feel superior to all the poor sods currently stressing about enrollment numbers and syllabi and "learning management systems" and best practice and shit. (Plus, it means I'm available for your marketing department. Feral citrus: remember.)
  • Also, I don't need to teach because I totally have other options. Like, four of them. And they each pay quite a lot a pittance that is slightly higher than what teaching would have. And only one is boring and unrelated to linguistics.
  • Totally not at all even a little bit connected to that last point: I have finally worked out why, while I was editing a collected papers volume last year for the last four fucking years, senior academics would chide me and tell me it wasn't so hard really and I must be doing something wrong. It's because said senior academics, when they "edit" a volume do so by hiring someone like me to actually do the, you know, EDITING. And formatting. And hassling of contributors. It turns out it IS quite easy to edit a volume if all it involves is managing research assistants and the occasional phone call to the publisher.
  • I can't even pronounce 'Obamabilia'.

  • Hmmm... what else? It rained a little bit today. And Geekman and I took the afternoon off to eat doughnuts, drink coffee, and do a jigsaw puzzle.**
  • The End.


* A company name that I swear we did not make up even though it totally sounds like we did.

** Which is not a euphemism, but given the context, it sounds as though it should be.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Did Al Capone take over my country when I wasn't looking?

I had the weirdest conversation about New Zealand today.

The guy cutting my hair, originally from Korea, said he always wanted to travel to NZ but was scared to because of "all the gangsters".

"Gangsters?" I asked. "I don't think New Zealand is known for its gangsters."
"Yes, yes!" He assured me. "Very dangerous. I see it on SBS. A documentary. New Zealand has very many gangsters."
"Well, I know crime is high in some cities, but there are plenty of safer places too. Where would you like to go in NZ?"
"I like to camping," he said. "I want to walk native bush. Milford Sound."
"I'm pretty sure you'd be safe from criminals out in the bush."
"No!" he replied, shooting me a look of obvious contempt for my ignorance, "NZ have very many gangsters. Nowhere is safe."

Donation update

Claudia was due for her first frozen transfer today. You may remember there were four embryos total, of which one had already been transferred, unsuccessfully.

So yesterday the clinic started defrosting. The first and second ones to defrost didn't survive the process. The third (their last chance) did. Claudia and Rob started the trip to Sydney at five o'clock this morning. Halfway there they had a call from the clinic not to bother. The third embryo had not continued to develop.

So that was that. To be honest, I'm a bit surprised that we only got one transfer from 40+ follicles (22 fertilised eggs). The clinic had also said they had a near-100% successful thaw rate, so we're all wondering how come we got to be such outliers.

I've offered to do another cycle if they want to try again. I initially thought I'd do one only, but honestly the last one was no big deal, and I'm too invested in the process to give up now.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Probably only of interest to locals

I've been trying to find out what you can legally do in Australia to get money for a car that is unroadworthy, but still basically functional. NOWHERE online is this information forthcoming. So I thought I'd put up a short post here detailing what I've found out, in the hope that it might be useful to other people searching for the same information.

It seems you might be allowed to sell a car "as is", without passing a roadworthiness test, but you still need to have it inspected by a mechanic, and give the buyer the mechanic's list of what needs to be done to make it roadworthy; also you have to take reasonable steps to ensure that the buyer does not drive the car home from the sale: i.e. you can be prosecuted if they drive it with your knowledge. This all seems like too much hassle and expense for a car that is probably only going to sell for $300. Note: I was also unable to find out whether this is true for the ACT*—the information in this paragraph is based on what I could find out for some other states.

Inside the philosophy factory told me that charities in the USA will sometimes buy old cars, since they can sell them for scrap. This doesn't seem to be the case here.

Wreckers vary wildly in terms of how much they will give you, or whether they want your car at all. Nonetheless, this turned out to be the best option. I called 10 wreckers around the ACT. Most don't even answer their phones. Five did: two didn't want the car; one was willing to give us $80; one offered $50; and one (Queanbeyan Auto Dismantlers) offered $200. (You can guess which one we went with.) The two wreckers who didn't want our car at all also recommended trying Queanbeyan Auto Dismantlers, so I guess they are the biggest or otherwise most likely to buy cars.

Incidentally, the wreckers who offered money for the car were only interested once I told them we could drive the car over to them. If your car is undriveable, I think you'll be lucky not to have to PAY someone to take it away.


* Note: I'm deliberately including my state here, despite my anonymity. Otherwise this post is pretty much useless in terms of people searching for relevant info. However, I'm still avoiding using my city's name, as I prefer google searches for [CITY] + [UNIVERSITY] or [CITY] + linguistics not to list this blog in their results!

Monday, January 12, 2009

How to negotiate like someone who hardly knows what they are doing

We bought a new car!

Well, okay, actually it's really quite old.

But!! It's newer than our current one, which is what counts. And it's all blue and shiny. Hooray! It also has special features like power steering, air conditioning, and other things that have been standard in cars since 1753. Such as paintwork. And suspension.


Here is a photo, not of our actual car, but a stunt double:

And the technical specifications, for those who like that sort of thing.

I would like to state for the record that I hate cars, and I hate buying them. I also hate driving them. I would like nothing better than to live without a car, and I'm not just saying that for my green credentials. But it turns out to be quite difficult to live in this city without one, and an annual public transport ticket for both me and Geekman would cost more than a car does to run. By quite a lot.

The absolute worst part of buying a car is the negotiating. I have no clue what I am doing. Our friend Jana, who was visiting when we first started test driving cars, gave us the advice that we should begin by pointing out all the flaws with the car, and why it is overpriced, and then make an offer. Unfortunately(?) this car had no flaws. And was not overpriced.

But, watch and learn from the master. This is how my negotiating went:

Geekman, whispering: "I'm going to stand over there in the corner and pretend this isn't happening, okay? Good luck."

Me, to the owner: "Um, yeah. We like it. It's a good car. [Frantically tries to think of any problems with it or features that are lacking. Fails. Moves straight to step two in the negotiating process.] We'd like to offer you $4,500 for it."

Car owner: "Huh. You know, these are listed on Red Book for $7000–9000."

Me, with an inspired, yet traditional comeback: "No they aren't."

[At this point I realise I might be digging myself a hole, because the next obvious step is to pull out the notes I made about the Red Book listing, and while it wasn't $7000–9000, it WAS a range that meant this guy's asking price was totally reasonable.]

Car owner: "You've got to look at the features, anyway. This one has power steering and aircon and a good CD player."

Me, at a complete loss for any further bargaining tactics, also thinking that his price really is quite acceptable: I stare blankly.


Car owner: "Yeah, okay, you can have it for $4,500."

I guess the good thing about buying privately instead of from a dealer is that the seller is likely to be equally clueless as you are.

Now that you have observed my mad negotiating skillz, here's a quick quiz for you.

Imagine you are the seller. Which of the following are NOT selling points, and therefore should probably NOT be emphasised while potential buyers are inspecting your car?
(a) "It's really quite tinny. You get a lot of road noise."
(b) "It's a beaut car, but. It's never had no issues or nuthink."
(c) "I wouldn't drive it on long trips like to Sydney or somewhere. The engine's not really that powerful."
(d) "It runs off a tank of petrol literally forever."

(a) and (c) are things you probably shouldn't tell a potential buyer.
(b) is acceptable, and will add to your Authentic Australian cred.
(d) is something I probably won't complain about if it turns out to be truth rather than grammar.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Friday, January 09, 2009

High school flashback

The gym changing rooms today are full of 14-year-olds getting ready for a soccer tournament. Oh the angst! Oh the bitchiness! Oh the "casual" swearing, followed by a quick scan of the room to see if anyone's impressed. Oh the attempts to get changed into gym gear without actually exposing any skin to your classmates.

Actual conversation:

"Oh my god, like, get OVER it."
"Oh my god, like, NO."
"Oh my god, like, YES."
"Oh my god, like, what the hell?"
"Oh my god, like, she said get OVER IT."

Something that never fails to amuse me

The person who is in charge of administering grant money at our university has a surname which sounds exactly like French for "pays well".

Do you know anyone with an exceptionally appropriate (or inappropriate) name?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Caveman with a million dollar view

We were in Sydney in the weekend and on a walk around the coast near Bondi beach, we came across this guy living in a cave amongst the rocks.

He didn't seem to mind people taking photos, although I felt a bit guilty treating him like a tourist attraction. The only information I've been able to find out about him since is this story, which doesn't give a lot of details. The short version is, his name is Jhyim Mhiyles (he likes the letter y because it supposedly represents the trinity), and he has been living there for eight years.

Given that you'd usually pay upwards of a million dollars for a beachfront property at Bondi, I think he has found an brilliant alternative!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Hey, check out my site meter!

This blog just hit 100,000 visitors!

The 100,000th was whoever lives in Wilson, North Carolina, with the IP address starting with 66.26.66, who clicked over from this old post on Everyday Scientist. (You are also using WindowsXP, Firefox, your system is set to English language, and your monitor resolution is 1024 x 768. I know, spooky, huh?)

I'd offer a prize, but since you stayed for 0 seconds and only viewed one page, I can't imagine you'll be back.

This post brought to you by Stalky "OMG I can't believe you can get that much information about me" McStalkerson.

Why yes, a happy new year to you too

So this is traditionally the time of year when I post about how horribly hot it is and how I'm dying of summer, and you all reply that you are jealous.

So let's just take that as read, okay (36 C=97 F!) and I'll find something else to complain about instead.

How about this:

Our neighbours have gone on an extended holiday/moved out/who the hell knows. Their smoke alarm, however, has not. Beep beep BEEP. Every five minutes. I think it's the low battery alarm. If I could break in I would replace that freaking battery for them, but as it is we are doomed to hear beep beep BEEP every five minutes for the rest of our lives.

Including all. night. long.

Three days and counting. If you need me, I'll be the one biting a pillow and trying not to kill anyone.

Beep beep BEEP.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

If Jane Austen had had Facebook access...

...Pride and Prejudice might have looked something like this.

(Seen at Hoyden about Town)

On second thoughts, the Hamlet one is even better. I especially like the following lines:

Hamlet posted an event: A Play That's Totally Fictional and In No Way About My Family

Polonius thinks this curtain looks like a good thing to hide behind.

Polonius is no longer online.

Ophelia loves flowers. Flowers flowers flowers flowers flowers. Oh, look, a river.

Ophelia joined the group Maidens Who Don't Float.

At least if the academic career doesn't work out, I'll still be able to eat

One thing that I'm proud of from 2008 is that for the first! time! ever! we succeeded in growing big leafy things on our balcony. This is the fourth year we have tried, and usually by now, the second month of summer, sad little stunted seedlings would have succumbed to caterpillars and neglect, and would be shriveling weedily in their pots, waiting for us to dump them in the bin.

THIS summer, the view out to our balcony now looks like this:

Let's have a little tour, okay?

On the left we have the herb table.

This is mostly a success (especially because I threw out the shriveled, wormy lettuces before taking the photo). The coriander (called something different by Americans, which word escapes me right now) is the only disappointment. It went to seed within a couple of weeks, despite frequent pickings. And now it is covered in aphids and caterpillars and about to win a free trip to visit the lettuces. The chives, on the other hand, are clearly bent on world domination, and the basil grows faster than we can eat it.

Next to the herbs grow the beans.

They too appear to have ambitions of taking over the world, starting next Tuesday. We had to keep lashing on more and more poles to the balcony for them to climb, and now they have truly run out of space and are climbing each other. I think our upstairs neighbours will shortly be very surprised.

Next come the stunt tomatoes.

I call them my stunt tomatoes because they are both stunted, and yet performing feats of tomato production that defy the odds. Compare these to...

...the zombie tomato in the corner:

I do not understand this plant. It is a survivor from last year that kept producing tomatoes all through winter while we were waiting for it to hurry up and die already so we could reuse the pot. We didn't water it for a full six months, yet it did not die.

Its extra year of growth time means it has become bigger and scarier than any tomato plant I have ever seen. I can't reach the top of it even on tiptoes. Again I am forced to wonder what it will do now it has run out of balcony. It also has an unusual growth pattern of spurting up 30 or 40 cm overnight, accompanied by a corresponding die-off of leaves around the bottom. You can see that the leaves are now dead up to around the halfway mark, although the dry brown sticks down are still indomitably sprouting tomatoes.

So all in all I am ridiculously happy with our balcony garden this year. Not only is it pretty and shady (and allergy-inducing), but it is feeding us. We pick the tomatoes and beans every second day, and the container below shows an average haul:

This might be laughable to anyone with a garden or a large family, but it is more than enough for the two of us, and more than my balcony has ever produced in the past.

And now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and quarantine my coriander.