May 28, 2010

Melting pot

Imagine the scene: it's 38C (100F) outside. You're teaching for 2.5 hours but not in your normal room. Oh no. They've moved all classes to a campus 30 minutes away by bus, because  of a conference that's going on in your own building. The "other" campus looks nice but it is old. And therefore has no air-conditioning in the classroom you've been assigned. 

Students are gathering outside the room, waiting for another class to finish. An ambitious and initiative-taking student begins to phone the administration to look for a better room. I can't blame her. The situation is dire.

Not only is there no aircon, the room is tiny. You have to cram 42 students (plus yourself) in there. There aren't enough desks, and the students have to all scootch forward so that the student in front is less than 3 feet away from the board/screen, and the ones in the back can untangle the mess of desks that has been stacked there (presumably to make space for the other desks). 

You weren't able to get into your class on time because someone else was teaching in there and refused to finish his class on time. Then, he dawdled for another 5-10 minutes before realizing that all your students were jammed in the class and therefore class must be starting soon. "Doesn't your class start at 3.30?" "No, it starts at 3." (Unsaid: that's why I asked you to get out, you idiot). "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize!" (What, with 42 students under your armpits, you had no idea my class was due to start?).

Next, you find out that - of course - the cabinet to access the computer is locked. You send a student downstairs to security to find out how to get it opened. That way, you can at least somewhat control the class and get things started, vaguely on time. But the student comes back with word that only you can get the key; they refused to give it to him. So you totter down 3 flights  of stairs on your heels, in the heat, to get the key. (Why wasn't this organized ahead of time? They've only known about the conference for a year after all).

Eventually, I make it back to my class, after being held up for 5 minutes by the key people about how to work the cabinet. I already know. I use a similar system for every class. It's not difficult: open the door, start the computer, etc.

Finally, about 15-20 minutes late, we get to start class. Students are still straggling in because many of them had to rush from the main campus or other schools or their jobs downtown to this one. 

No one can really see the screen. The ones at the front are too close. And the screen is so low in the classroom that the ones at the back have to peek around their peers to see anything at all. I decide just to talk through the slides and sit among the students. I go through them quickly and focus on having a conversation to draw them in. 

But I can see that they are melting. Their faces are red, some sweaty. Their bodies are slumped in the seats. At least half of them look entirely irritated. And I agree with them entirely. I try not to show it. I'm supposed to be setting an example, after all.

I abandon the slides as quickly as I can and move on to a game I had planned for the day. The trick works. They forget where they are as the competitive spirit hits them. But half the class has to move out to the hallway or a nearby classroom to participate in the game. Confusion arises because not everyone is in the same room, and it's hard to get everyone's attention at once. I end up running around to each team, repeating my instructions multiple times.

In the end, we get there. I manage to get everyone back into the room, and clean up the left-overs of the game. I even manage to get them to sit down, facing the front, desks more or less back in the right place. We discuss the game. They seem more alert now.

I let them go early. Many of them breathe out grateful sighs, and I even hear a few "Thank you!"s. Yes. Thank the gods that's over. 

Next week it's supposed to cool down. I sincerely hope so because my request to change the room was met with a stony face. I guess all the profs are asking for room changes, and there is no space, since all of us were moved there. What a day.

May 20, 2010

Silly week

This week brought a lot of silliness. Mostly my own silliness, but some of it other peoples'. I put my foot in it, not once but twice. And dealt with a lot of frustrating situations. But at least I still get to "read books". So I should count myself lucky.

Long story short: I made the classic mistake - twice - of sending messages to the wrong recipient. Not necessarily such a disaster, except that the first email contained a bunch of personal banking information, and instead of copying my brother on it, I copied a friend with the same name. Luckily, this friend is a very close and trusted friend and upon my desperate text to please destroy the email, he did so immediately. But still, whoopsie.

The second incident was a bit more embarrassing. I sent a text about a person I was bitching about to said person. Instead of to my hubbie. Double whoopsie. Luckily, again, I wasn't being a complete cow in the text - more just stating facts of things that had gone wrong that day. Even so, I still blushed deeply when I realized my error. I was alone in the house, so other than my dog, no one saw my embarrassment, but I felt bad. I followed up with about 10 texts to my target, apologizing in many creative ways.

The rest of the week consisted of frustrating situations dealing with people who claim to work in customer services for various companies. None of whom actually served me, except for the really nice IT guy in my office - but then, he's from Hong Kong and not from Montreal. I'm starting to get a sense of the culture here, and in many ways it's fairly French/European: any request even remotely out of the ordinary or any request that looks like it might require some effort is politely, but firmly, brushed off. No one wants to take on the responsibility of actually solving your problem. Which left me running around in circles, all day. In fact, it was 4pm before I made it to my office today. Unsurprisingly, I no longer had any kind of motivation to work by then.

Still, I consider myself fortunate. My ride back from the conference with my colleagues made me realize that people who have kids never have time for anything. "You play video games?" one asked me, incredulously. And it wasn't to do with being shocked at my nerdiness, I realized. Rather, it was a shock that I'd have time to play video games. (I make time - academics never have time for anything otherwise). My colleagues' amazement was swiftly followed with a "You read books?? I'm so jealous." (Apparently, they're under the impression that books take even more time than video games -- which is largely untrue for any role-playing game such as FFXII).

I gathered that neither of them, in the last five or six years or so, had read anything for pleasure. Makes one reconsider ...

May 15, 2010


I was away, conferencing, for a couple of days in Boston. I had planned to tag on a day of partying and shopping but alas, it was not to be since my friend couldn't make it. So instead, I caught a 7+ hour ride back with my colleagues on Friday night.

As always, after a conference, I'm entirely wiped out. There is something about having to sit in an artificially lit auditorium all day that just doesn't work for human well-being. But at least it was a decent auditorium, with a number of substantial breaks (not enough even so), and pretty healthy food. The latter must be because this was a conference on sustainability, because usually you get stuck with donuts and coke. 

The conference itself is rather elite. Or at least, it's organized by an alliance of very elite schools. Which is good on one hand, because you get some real big thinkers in the room. But it's also a little intimidating because you're being scrutinized by them. I had the (mis)fortune of going first. It meant my pain was over quickly, but still ... there is quite a bit of pressure for going first and setting the stage.

The rest of the conference, I spent musing random thoughts - especially through the theoretical economics papers (think advanced applied calculus but worse). And in looking around the room a thought occured to me: most of the people in the room were not what would be considered beautiful. In fact, most of them were of average prettiness, or below. Don't get me wrong: I love the people that were in that room. They are talented, brilliant and I admire them in a way that I would never admire, say, Paris Hilton. But from an objective point of view, these people are really not that pretty.

Now, this could be partly because they're academics so many of them may not care too much about how they look. Or perhaps they lack the social awareness or talent of New York style grooming. But I think it's something more than that. While sitting there, among these brilliant minds, I thought about the effects of beauty in life. And that in general, things tend to be easier for beautiful people (think tall, handsome presidents). For the less than beautiful, life tends to be tougher. It makes me wonder where the ugly people go. I think one place is academia. Here are a group of people, seeking acknowledgement as we all do, but not able to get it from general societal cues; instead, they get it from shaping their minds into brilliance. And failing that, they probably end up in social work -- perhaps getting acknowledgements for doing good.

So then, where does that place the people who attend an academic conference on social and environmental sustainability, one might ask? Just a thought.

May 6, 2010

Self-declared nerd

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a true nerd. A cool one, perhaps. After all, I do wash my hair regularly, wear makeup on occasion and get out of the house from time to time to meet up with friends or attend events. But still a nerd.

There is lots of evidence. I LOVE math. Always did. Nothing gets me more excited than solving an equation or writing a proof. I spend hours on my statistical software - and this makes me happier than almost anything else when I'm feeling down. I program my own models. And I can even read papers in Econometrics (the journal) and understand them.

I have a photographic memory. Usually when I see things written down, they stay in my head, although I will admit this gets harder as I get older. I am meticulous about everything: analysis of data and interpretation, but also the writing process itself. 

On facebook, I draw network maps of my friendships. I ordered a genographic kit from National Geographic (which prompted a "nerd" comment on my fb status). 

For pleasure, I read almost exclusively in the sci-fi and fantasy genre, although I will stretch to vampirism when running out of options. Or, I buy and read things like a pictorial history of Canada, as I'm doing now.

All of these point to nerdiness. And worse than that, I'm even more of a closet nerd than my friends suspect: I love playing video games. In particular, I have an arguably unhealthy obsession with Final Fantasy. Some nerdy friends of mine who were studying to be medical doctors got me into this, years ago. 

Needless to say, the moment I heard about the release of Final Fantasy XIII (which in the past I would have tracked incessantly online, but now that I'm too busy at work, the release date slipped by without my knowledge), I HAD to have it.

We bumped across a special bundle deal in Singapore: a PS3 with the game. Beautifully designed, all in white. Special edition, all-region playable, lah-dee-lah, etc. Of course, they were out. Probably a good thing since I hardly care to explain to customs why I'm bringing in a PS3 console all the way from Asia.

The moment I hit terra firma in Canada, I began to search for the bundled package here. Only to find out, to my great disappointment, that XBOX 360 snagged the only bundling package in North America. Short of importing the PS3 from Japan, I would have to get a different kind of console. Now, I realize they're all more or less the same, but there are switching costs - I do have some other PS2 games that I might wish to play at some point.

Long story short, I decided to get an XBOX bundle. The only problem was ... Montreal seemed to be sold out. Completely! Some "guy" had gone round to all the electronics stores, and bought up all their stock (and the stores let him). Highly ennuyeux. And I expressed my disappointment to all the store managers. After all, that guy is probably just going to make a profit on Ebay - they should limit the number of bundles sold, just like Apple do with their iPads.

In any case, the entire thing became sort of ridiculous with me driving all around Montreal from store to store until I finally hit on one that still had two in stock. I felt sort of foolish. After all, I'm nearly 37 years old, and here I am, taking time "off" from work to find a frigging XBOX.

But I got it. And I set it up, all by myself. And even managed to find the right TV channel for it. Didn't bother doing the online thing with it, since I don't care. I just played the game for about an hour or so this morning. I'm limiting myself at the moment since I have a conference to prepare for next week. But it'll be a nice distraction for me over the summer when the office is quieter and hubby spends all his time doing photos on his laptop. 

Woo hoo.

May 1, 2010

So over cattle class already.

I'm going to sound like a snob. I realize this. But the reality is that I hate flying economy class. 

Blame it on a lavish expat lifestyle or an overpaid job in my earlier years. Though neither are really to blame: my parents were too stingy to buy us business class seats, as was the company I worked for. As a child, I literally spent days flying in as an unaccompanied minor - my brother and I had a system worked out in which one of us would sleep on the floor and the other across the three seats assigned to the two of us. And then switch a few hours later. We weren't even allowed off the plan back then, even though there were at least four stop overs: from Seoul to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Mumbai, Dubai to Zurich. 

As an adult, my company's policy was to issue business class tickets to flights over 6 hours. Except, they decided, for the popularly travelled London-New York route, or anywhere in Asia once they figured out that virtually all flights in Asia would be over 6 hours. Only once did I manage to bully my boss into letting me fly business when I balked at an insane flying-and-working schedule he'd planned for me. Since the price between economy and business was hardly different, he acquiesced.

So I should be used to flying cattle class. I call it that because "economy" hardly describes the flying experience. I read once that people in economy have less space and rights than animals being transported in western nations. Not to mention things like lack of food (and I heard recently, bathrooms!) without paying an extra fee. 

The entire experience is just horrendous. I'm hardly a big person, but even my knees hit the seat in front of me. The seats never recline enough to alleviate a multitude of neck and back aches, my butt and coccyx lose any sensation after the first 15 minutes because the seat is not cushioned enough, the air is too dry, the bathrooms are disgusting, the water isn't distributed often enough, and I'm always hungry. Then there are the other passengers: sniffling, burping, farting, snorting, snoring, coughing, climbing over you, hitting the back of your seat, dropping their luggage on you, spilling their drink/food into your lap, babies (oh, don't get me started on babies and toddlers, I'll spare you) ... you name it, it's happened to me. (Clearly, I fly too much).

Each time I fly, I'm left wondering how anyone ever gets from A to B. People are clueless about how to find their seat, how to fasten their belts, how to get off the plane, where to go when they get off, and always, always stop the moment they get off the plane in the middle of the jetway right in front of me, to ask the stewardess or the people with the wheelchairs where they're going. 

It all leaves me rather frustrated. I try, as much as possible, to minimize that frustration. I bring water, earplugs, music, books, a neck pillow. I even insist on an aisle seat so that I can pace up and down the plane without having to climb over anyone, since I know I need to do this at least every 30 minutes. But it's never enough. And when I have to fly for 24 hours to get to the other side of the world, and then come back, I'm just about done with it all. I am left feeling I want to hit something and beat it to a pulp. 

I wish that airline designers would talk to passengers like me, who fly a lot, about their experience. What would it take to make this more comfortable? In my MANY hours on flights, I've come up with more than a hundred good ideas about how to improve air travel.

But ultimately, it's about space and quiet. If you can lay down, like you can these days in many business class seats, and if you don't have a screaming kid within the vicinity, and you can get to (a clean) bathroom when you need it, the flying experience improves ten fold.

So perhaps it's time to start saving up, and realize that I just don't belong in cattle class. With all those people who never fly and don't know what they're doing and don't know how to behave in a considerate manner. So I'll admit it. I'm a snob.