Sunday, November 21, 2010

When the coffee hits the keyboard

Life is busy as it is. But when on a quiet Sunday morning, you knock a cup of coffee (with a lot of milk in it) onto your laptop, it becomes busier still. My laptop won't start now and this means at least a week if not more of makeshift arrangements, looking carefully at one's backups to see what's missing, installing new programs on a new laptop (if I do have to get one).

And when the coffee splashed over the keyboard, I had been working on a travel piece. I had written about two pages, but now have no backup. So this means blogging, which had crawled to a stop anyway, will still more crawl to a stop. And the end of the semester is round the corner. I am looking forward to the winter break, but after the break a Tsunami of work will hit me. I'll be teaching two classes (probability and statistics; and operations research in healthcare) for the first time. Even though I've prepped those classes, my peers tell me two classes will me give no breathing space to do any research, let alone writing of the fun kind.

We'll see what I can manage here over the next half year. Hopefully it won't be too bad.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Back from Austin

I am back from a conference in Austin. I enjoyed the warm weather, the lively bars and pubs on 6th street (downtown), catching up with good friends, and conversations with Texan cab-drivers. One of these cab-drivers, a bearded old man in a cowboy hat, had a lovely accent. He was also the friendliest of them all. This being an academic conference, technical jargon dominated the hallways and sessions. I remember walking by a session on financial models and watching with some horror mathematical symbols and terms such as “equilibrium” and “global optimal” on slide after slide. It reminded me of something I’d read in a recent book: “We have trained our minds to compute, not think” and “Complicated equations do not tend to cohabit with clarity of mind”.

A typical conference conversation between two people might go like this:

“Have you graduated yet?”

“No, but I think I’ll be done in spring. My adviser wants me to write an additional paper to derive some theoretical properties; we are hoping to submit it to one of the technical journals.”

(That paper will be read by handful of people, but the fact that it appeared in a prestigious technical journal means more than the paper’s content. So the paper will have greater presence and impact on the author’s CV; the worth of the actual work might remain untested and unverified even if it gets many citations. The name of the journal will automatically lend credence to the author. It works like magic in academia.)

“So are you in the job market now?”

“Yes, I am interested in both academic and industry jobs. I interviewed with FedEx yesterday and am talking with MIT today.”

“Wow! Well -- good luck. Let’s collaborate -- here's my card!”

“Collaborate”, “work together”, “multi-center grants”, “co-authoring papers”: the immediate effect of these terms is the exchange of business cards. Wallets start bulging and teem with exciting future possibilities. People run out of their own cards and then write their contact information on slips of paper.

I had a good time overall. I saw a lot of posturing, arrogance, self-absorption but also genuine reaching out, friendliness, warmth, gossip and laughter. I ate Tex-Mex food (at a restaurant called Chupacabra, named after a mythical animal), drank the occasional beer and on the last day went to see Texas State Museum. My last meal at Austin was an Indian meal at a restaurant called Clay Pit.

That's the news for now. The next post might take a while, as I catch up with work and some local travel.