Monday, March 26, 2007

First day of the term

The first day of Spring term has arrived. It's a chilly out, but still fairly spring-like. It's a little misty, and the air almost smells like the ocean. In around two hours I'll teach my first class, Calculus II. Should be fun.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Reviewing Applications

The past month I've spent a lot of time reviewing applications of various sorts. I'm on COA's admission committee, so I've read probably at least 150 undergraduate admission applications. Also, I've read many student applications in my role as co-director for the Santa Fe Institute's Complex Systems Summer School (CSSS). I was the main reader for around fifty applications, and in making the final selections I looked over at least fifty more. (Note to CSSS applicants who may find this blog: expect to hear from us about whether or not you've been accepted by the end of the day Monday.) I'm also chairing a search committee for a one-term visiting faculty member in ethnography. This has entailed around 40 applications. And I'm on the selection committee for two internal COA scholarships.

The net result is that I've read a great many application letters, CVs, personal statements, and so on. It's been a little surreal. One thing that is odd is that the applicants I've been reading are at very different stages in their academic lives. COA applicants are mostly still in high school. The CSSS applicants are mostly in the middle of grad school. The scholarship applicants are in the middle of their undergrad work. And the faculty applicants range from ABDs to seasoned teachers and researchers.

It's odd to think about how many judgements I've had to make the last month. I've gotten used to this, as I've been on the admission committee for a number of years and have also served on several search committees and the like. But as I pause to reflect on it cumulatively, it's somehow strange thinking that I've basically given a yes or no response to around 350 various applications over the last month. Conservatively, I probably spend an average of five minutes reading an application. (Often it's much more.) This adds up to almost thirty hours spent reviewing applications. Or, assuming an 8-hour workday, this is 3.75 days of work.

Anyway, nobody asked me, but after doing all this application reading, I have a few words of advice for applicants.

  1. Don't leave any mysteries unexplained. If there is something unusual--a few F's, you've changed high schools (or graduate schools) several times, there is a large gap in your work history--provide an explanation. Otherwise, it's too easy for readers to imagine the worst. For example, perhaps you changed schools several times because your parents or your spouse had to relocate for professional reasons. No big deal. But if you don't mention this, the selection committee will start wondering if you got kicked out of the school for some reason, of if you have a drug habit, or if you are incapable of staying put. I've seen this happen often: there's something unusual in an application and the committee engages in all sorts of speculation. Sometimes the speculation is positive, sometimes not.

  2. Spell check. I'm not the sort of person who is going to flip out if there are a few typos in an application. This happens to everyone. But typos that could have been caught by a spell-checker are bad. They really don't reflect well on an applicant. And in general ...

  3. At least act like you care. You won't do yourself any favors with one or two sentence answers to essay questions, even if those sentences are clever and neatly typed.

  4. In most circumstances, it's not helpful to send material that wasn't asked for in the application. Usually, sending unsolicited materials only tells the committee that you're not good at reading directions.

Finally, a few positive comments:

  1. The vast majority of applications that I've read this year have been extremely well done. I'm genuinely amazed at how many applications I've seen form really smart, creative, and engaged people.

  2. I really appreciate, this year more than ever, applicants who take the time to make their applications clear and concise.

  3. I also really appreciate good letters of recommendation. I've written close to 100 letters of recommendation since coming to COA, and I know that writing thoughtful, informative letters takes time. Such letters can make a difference, especially for the applicants that are in the middle. For the super strong and the clearly unprepared, the letters don't matter much. But for the rest, I think the letters can matter a lot.

This has turned into a much longer entry than I had anticipated, and I have no idea how to conclude. But I'm tired of writing, so I think I'll just stop, and not attempt a conclusion.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Back in Maine

I'm back in Maine. Today has been a semi-frantic day of emails and phone calls and meetings. Despite much activity and effort, it feels like the net result has been negative--that I'm actually further behind than I was before. Some things that I thought were complete have been somewhat undone by others. It's frustrating, but that's life, I suppose.

Despite a difficult day, it's great to be back home. The cats seem happy to see me, and it's nice to sleep in my own bed. Thursday was gray and chilly, but today it was sunny and in the upper 50's. The snow is mostly melted, and there is hope for spring.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Philadelphia Airport Blogging

I'm currently in the Philadelphia international airport, in the middle of a five-hour layover. My flight from Amsterdam was uneventful. The seat next to me was empty, so I was able to stretch out. I did some reading, took a few naps, listened to some music, and tried to do a mini "core dump" of all the different things I need to be working on over the next few weeks. My list got to around 70, and I'm sure that I'm not close to having captured everything. The core-dump was pretty productive. Although it's scary thinking about all I need to do, it's scarier to not core-dump and spend my days worried about all that I need to do instead of actually doing it.

I'm in the walkway outside one of those airport malls. Specifically, I'm across from a TGI Friday's, sitting on the floor next to a power outlet. It's actually more comfortable for me to sit on the floor than in a chair when I'm working on my laptop. Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun is wafting out of the TGIF's. I've always liked the song. It came out in 1983, when I was 14. And 23 years later it's being played in restaurant chains in airports, and I still like it.

My last day in Amsterdam was fun. I'll blog about it in a separate entry.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Last day in Amsterdam

Today is my last day in Amsterdam. Tomorrow I fly back home to Maine. It's been a nice week here--pleasantly lazy and relaxing. I like Amsterdam a lot and hope to return in the not too distant future. Doreen travels to Amsterdam fairly frequently, so I'll probably be able to tag along on some future trip.

As is almost always the case for me at the end of a trip, I'm simultaneously disappointed to be leaving and looking forward to being home. It will be nice to be back in my own bed and to see the cats and to get ready for spring term. Spring has the potential to be amazingly busy, as I'm teaching two classes and have a bunch of administrative tasks to attend to. I think the mini-vacation here has done me good. I don't feel completely rejuvenated, but my batteries have recharged significantly.

Off to get some falafel and wander around the city some. It was raining earlier, but it appears to have stopped. Later I'll meet Doreen, and if we have time we'll go to the Van Gogh museum.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Culinary Amsterdam Update

Some further Amsterdam tidbits, with a mostly culinary theme.

  • The falafel place that I like so much is Maoz, which is a small chain. They started in the Netherlands and now have a few dozen branches, including three in the US. The falafel is excellent, and there's a great self-serve bar with all sorts of tasty fixings and sauces that you can put on the falafel. I will head there shortly.

  • Yesterday Doreen and I had dinner at Indrapura, an Indonesian restaurant on rembrantplein. We order vegetarian rijsttafel, or rice table. It's a bowl of rice and then small plates with all sorts of tasty things to put in the rice: various tofu concoctions and veggies in curry and lots of other things. It's a bit a spectacle--like a bento box gone wild. The food arrives in many small containers that are arrayed all over the table. All in all, it was a seriously good meal.

  • At a pub yesterday I had La Chouffe ale. It was amazing--among the best beer I've ever had. It's like a subtler version of some of the over-the-top unibroue beers from Quebec.

I've had some excellent Thai food and some mediocre dutch sorts of things. Breakfast at the hotel is unremarkable, but it does provide sufficient nourishment and caffeine so I can make it to a cafe for some good coffee.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Amsterdam Tidbits

I'm still in Amsterdam, enjoying the city and wandering around. I've been doing a little bit of work, but mostly I've been trying to give myself a break. A few assorted observations and vignettes, in a bulleted list so I don't have to try and connect paragraphs:

  1. Apparently it's standard practice in the Netherlands to put choc late sprinkles on toast. The chocolate sprinkles have some long Dutch name, but I'm not fooled: they're just chocolate sprinkles, like one would find at a Dairy Queen. I tried them on my toast, and it didn't do much for me.

  2. As I mentioned in a previous post, I went for a short (and slow) run in Vondlepark a few days ago. While running I saw parrots! At first I thought I must be mistaken. But I mentioned the parrot sightings to Doreen and she confirmed that there is indeed a colony of parrots that is established in Vondlepark. Apparently there is also a parrot colony somewhere in Belgium. Good for the parrots; I'm glad they've escaped captivity and are doing ok.

  3. Also on my Vondlepark run I saw someone who looked spookily like my brother. It was kinda bizarre.

  4. I discovered last night that it's possible to get falafel after 4AM. This is definitely a sign of an advanced civilization. I also discovered that 4AM falafel is super yummy.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Further Amsterdam Dispatches

The last two days I've been wandering around Amsterdam, taking in the sights and the sounds. I've also done some reading and a bunch of email. I've had some excellent Thai food, and today I found a great falafel place. Last night's dinner was a little uninspiring. We were eating with some greenpeace folks, who picked out the restaurant. Most thought it was very, very good. I thought the food was kinda bland and not that interesting. It was a serve-yourself buffet sort of arrangement. The food was fine, but it was more like eating a bunch of snacks. It would have been fine if an entree followed. But instead it was just snacks. And then the greenpeace folks got in a big discussion about genetically modified potato strategies. It was fascinating to them, but I didn't really know what they were talking about.

I spent a bunch of time in bookstores today, of which there are quite a few in the neighborhoods I've been walking. I also checked out a bunch of CD stores. Happily, I did not talk to any racist DJ/shopkeepers. I did, however, stumble across some excellent music. There was this awesome track that was being played in two CD stores that I went into. So I asked about it. Turns out that it's lcd soundsystem. They're from New York, but I hadn't heard of them before.

The track that is now a minor anthem for me is get innocuous. If the Talking Heads and the Chemical Brothers collaborated, this is what it would sound like. You can read about the track here. And with a little googling, you should be able to find an mp3.

I'm off to meet Doreen for dinner. LCD Soundsystem will be keeping me company in my headphones.

A Brush with Racism

I spent much of yesterday wandering around Amsterdam, admiring the canals and the old crooked buildings and going in little shops. One of the stores I went into was a small dance music/CD/vinyl/etc place. It was an interesting place. I checked out some CDs and events flyers and also a bunch of nice T-shirts. I thought I might get a shirt for Doreen for her birthday which is coming up in a few weeks.

I struck up a conversation with the shopkeeper, who was pretty friendly and talkative. He asked where I was from and what I thought of Amsterdam, and so on. His accent didn't sound Dutch to me--perhaps Russian?--so I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Serbia and that he move to Amsterdam around 15 years ago because my country was dropping bombs on his country. We chuckled. He opened the store a few years ago.

I then asked him how he liked Amsterdam. He said he didn't like it so much. Why not, I asked. And here is where the conversation changed. He began by explaining that the reason things went wrong in Yugoslavia is that they let the Muslims live with them. It was ok when they were just 10%, but they multiplied like rabbits, because that's what they do best, and then it was a problem. And now they're here in Amsterdam and he doesn't like it.

Ug. I didn't see this coming. He continued.

He doesn't like the Turks, Moroccans, the Arabs, and "the Blacks". The Arabs come to his store to steal, where as "the Blacks" will just rob him directly. He explained that it's not that he has anything against Muslims, he just doesn't like to see them. The Muslims are always talking against "us." He went on in this vein for a little while. He was getting slightly agitated.

I was transfixed and didn't really know what to do. I was so amazed that he was speaking this way that I sort of wanted him to continue. I also wanted to turn around and leave. But for a reason I can't explain, I didn't want to be that rude. I also wasn't sure I should turn my back on someone who was getting agitated. But there was a counter between him and me, so there really wasn't any danger.

I thought briefly of telling him that I was Arab, or that my wife is from Turkey. (Neither of which are true.) Or that I'm Jewish. (Which is slightly true.) But I didn't. I eventually got him to change the subject by asking him about the music that he produces.

Needless to say, I didn't buy a t-shirt from him. I saw Doreen later in the day and told her that I almost got a birthday present for her. Why didn't you, she asked? Because the store I saw your potential gift at is owned by a vile racist, I explained. Oh, she said.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In Amsterdam

I am currently in Amsterdam. I'll be here for about a week. Doreen is here for some Greenpeace International meetings. I thought I'd tag along. I'd never been to Amsterdam before. So far, I like it a lot. I flew overnight yesterday, arriving around 9:00am. I made it to the little hotel where Doreen is staying, unpacked and brushed my teeth, and then set out exploring. I walked for hours, wandering in and out of shops. I had a great Thai lunch and enjoyed watching people and seeing the city. The canals and the old buildings are beautiful, and there's lots to see and do.

Dutch is cool sounding. I keep thinking that Dutch sounds a little bit like The Swedish Chef with a chest cold. There are seagulls in the city, mostly hanging around the canals. What's interesting is that they also sound Dutch. Like regular seagulls, but kinda throaty. It's almost as if the seagulls are trying to do duck imitations.

Anyway, my first 24 hours or so in Amsterdam have been great. I like living in coastal Maine, but I also really like cities. I'll have lots of time to explore, as Doreen is pretty much in meetings 9-5 every day that I'll be here. The weather is warm--in the mid 50's--which feels almost tropical after the Maine winter.

Right now I'm in a cafe with good, fast wireless. I'm enjoying an excellent, but expensive, cappuccino. I need to do some work, including making some of the final selections for the students for the Complex Systems Summer School. Later today I will do more exploring and may also go for a short run in a park near our hotel.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A New Blogger

Doreen has started a blog, Digging Deeper. She's planning on blogging about agriculture and food politics. Her inaugural post is about an unapproved genetically engineered contaminant that has been found in rice in the US. Oops.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

End of the term

It's 9:20 PM on the Thursday night before the last Friday of Winter Term. It's zero degrees outside. And inside many students are working deliriously to finish assignments and prepare presentations. Hard to believe that "spring" break starts in less than 24 hours.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Not Spring Yet

Today was bitterly cold. The high was three, and it was negative one when I drove to campus. And with the windchill it was about negative 3000. Today I had multiple meetings, all in different buildings. So I had to venture outside more than is ideal. There is a slightly cranky mood on campus because it's almost absolute zero outside and it's the last week of the term. But given this, people are holding up pretty well. The two-week break will be a good thing.

In other news, I was talking on the phone today in my office and out of my window I saw a bald eagle fly by. I've seen eagles from campus before, be never one from my window. The eagle was definitely one of the day's highlights.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Back in Maine

Well, I made it back to Maine. My journey on Tuesday was long, but mostly uneventful. I made it home around 9:45 pm, in plenty of time to watch The Daily Show with Doreen. It was nice to be back.

Wednesday was a crazy day of back to back meetings. Things went well, but the meeting density was definitely too high. Thursday was slightly calmer. I had way too many things to do, but at least I didn't have my entire day scheduled with meetings. I taught a class on pointers in C++ which was fun. I like pointers.

Friday, we had a snow day. Or, more accurately, a snow/ice/sleet/rain/wind day. It starting snowing early in the morning, and we had gotten seven inches or so by midafternoon and it was quite windy. Then it changed to sleet. At times it sounded like sand was pelting our house. It turned into rain shortly before it ended. The result is a lot of heavy snow and slush. Getting my car out of the driveway yesterday was a bit of an ordeal. And we still haven't extracted Doreen's car. That'll be a task for this afternoon.

So last week was a bit odd, as weather prevented me from being on campus three out of five days. Somehow I don't feel as far behind as I'd expect. I'm not sure why this is. It might just be denial. This upcoming week is the last of our ten-week winter term. I spent a lot of time this weekend doing errands and cleaning around the house. I usually do this right after the term ends, not the week before. But perhaps by doing this now, I'm poised to have a more energetic and productive spring break.

It's time to move some firewood and see if I can dig out Doreen's car. Then I will head to campus and write lots of memos.