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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

As the world turns ... a lot!

For once I'm writing while I'm not traveling.

Even though in the past 18 months I've uprooted my entire world and turned it on its head, topsy-turvy and willy-nilly, some things don't change. Almost two years later, I'm still a scientist (who'd a figgered?) and I'm still traveling all the time. My science is so much broader now, focused as it is at the moment on global synthesis rather than fundamentals, that I sometimes wonder if can be really called science. The travel is a reflection of that; I'm working in the trenches of renewable energy development and deployment, at the interfaces between the natural sciences, social sciences, policy and regulation, and global impacts. It's an amazing place to be, an amazing opportunity to have, and almost every day I'm overwhelmed by my good fortune of being in a position to contribute directly to saving the world. How cool is that?

Yes, I love my focused science and I do it when I can; it has not been jettisoned. But right now, at this moment in time, I'm where I'm needed, and so happy to be making a material contribution.

As an aside, I'm also really entertained by my last post before this one - I wonder if that could have been some sort of foreshadowing. Within days of that post I must have begun the preparations to move to, ahem, Cal.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


There's a guy at the next table with a Cal T-shirt on -- not something I expect to see here. You see quite a few "I love NYxx" shirts, and some marketing shirts, but very few college shirts. This might the first I've seen.

I heard the Chile Peppers' 'Californication' while I was out running this morning, and it reminded me how homesick I really am. Also, how ... snobbish? Is it snobbish to know (hee!) that you come from the place that sets all the trends? That pushes back the frontiers of knowledge and technology and progress? I'm ready for this exile to end.


Aachen is one of my favorite places. Last week I went with colleague and we ran around having coffee and buying gifts. This week, I went and had coffee on the square, and gelato, and generally doing nothing in particular except reading and being. I'll have more to say about both trips later.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Weekly update.

It is another beautiful day, wonderful to be outside and wandering. I made multiple trips down to the markt, rather than carrying everything around with me. Unfortunately, I was too impatient to wait at the florist, and when I returned, all of the sunflowers had gone. If they are not at the Tuesday markt, there will be no flowers for me this week. On the other hand, I got to the markt early enough (deliberately after an early run) to get the voll-korn croissants from my favorite baker. When the crowd before the Wein und Kaese cart clears (currently it is stacked two or three deep!) I will get cheese. Until then, coffee and waiting for them to find the internet passcode at Liebevoll (which, obviously happened).

My German is not progressing much, although I am more confident in using it. The language seems to be reawakening in me, but the time lag is prohibative. I'm a bit afraid that the only way I will get better at this point is by emersion. Which, I concede, is tempting. My "Americanness" is showing rather clearly, in ways I think I would not have noticed in the past* -- in the fact that I am the only person in the cafe with a computer out, and that computer is an Apple (a very definate status symbol, and one which embarrasses me a little -- I use it because it is, quite simply and without challenger, the best tool for the myriad of tasks I do), and I drink my coffee faster, I drink more water, and I'm fatter (conspicuous consumption, anyone?). I am also one of very few people I see "execising" outside -- when I run in the mornings, I seldom meet another runner (I was very excited to do so today!). At the moment, I rather feel that it is tatooed on my forehead.

The week has been busy and slow by turns. I think we're making real progress on the joint project, and am very much looking forward to the arrival of our experimental colleague next week. Hopefully by the end of this weekend, I'll have the first test cases running, any by the time she arrives, something to show her. The worst of the jet-lag seems to be subsiding (I have now slept through the night twice!), and I hope that my productivity increases correspondingly.

There have been some interesting fights on the project so far -- the biggest one about priorities and what should be included at what stage. Some of the 'purer' contributors are advocating for a more ... intellectual? picture, that is less focused on the experimental system and more on the model describing it. In the past few years, I have found myself more and more on the side of the experimentalists in believing that model is not intersting in and of itself, but rather in its relation to the system studied. This fight seemed to center on using the model to test limiting behavior (which _is_ important for validation) and then exploring all of the ramifications of the model's response. The project certainly could be taken that direction, but the resulting knowledge would be only narrowly interesting. I am hunting larger prey.

In the course of our discussion, I think that we did, finally, come to an understanding of the larger goals. The colleague here has come to the project much later, and did not understand the scope of our work. He seems now to be on the same page, but I suspect that his contribution will be only technical (which we need, I'm not impugning that). The group here has been very isolated, and it will take them some time to establish wider relationships. Part of that will be the development (or re-development) of a recognition that different work is also meritous. Their isolation has made them technically adept, but scientifically maldeveloped. In this age of truly inter-disciplinary research, that will prove fatal.


*One benefit of the last few years -- probably the largest -- has been spending lots of time with a friend/colleague who _never_ lets me get away with "just is" responses and whose powers of observation are astounding. Because of our interaction, I pay far more attention to subtler details and implications.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sunday morning reflections.

Sitting outside at Liebevoll (of course!), I am drinking an excessive number of coffees and having breakfast. It is all very American of me, although I have not yet needed to resort to English! The quantity of coffee is the Americanism, more than anything else -- it is far more common here to have a single (small!) cup of very strong coffee than to have several cups of weaker coffee. I, naturally, am drinking several cups of very strong coffee, and if it weren't so expensive I would drink more! I also possess a little of the American puritanism and am a bit startled by the drinking of beer before noon. It is not uncommon, though, and, really, it does not seem to be destroying society in any way. Then again, this is also a place that legalized civil unions seven years ago (and whose population overwhelmingly supports fully legalizing gay marriage), also without destroying society, so perhaps they are on to something.

I am frequently struck by the more subtle cultural differences. The region is so much like the American midwest that it is disarming, and the language sounds very much like English to me, as do the people. But in the stores, the cultural differences become apparent. Things are grouped together using what seems to be an entirely different categorization scheme, and I find myself puzzling over it, trying to figure out the governing rule set. This is true for stores themselves, also, not just where they put things but what they have. My favorite are the stores that sell coffee and travel or cleaning supplies, and jeans (really? why?). Utterly baffling and strangely entertaining.

The morning is rather nautical, the sky made up many depths of translucent gray and intermittent sun. It is rather pretty, and sometimes very breezy. The wind has, in fact, just blown brötchen and napkins across the square, chased by yelps and laughter. I caught my screen guard only a few feet away -- I was lucky. The wind also sends organ music wafting in from the church. Very Gothic and atmospheric; religion with a dose of Hollywood horror (we just need Lon!). There is also a bird shrieking that sounds rather like a pterodactyl. The other sounds are supplied by a party upstairs at the Stadt Hotel -- lots of giggling and a recorder. Periodically gales a laughter drift down, and those of us sitting outside look up and smile at each other in response.

Church is letting out. Elderly couples slowly leaving the cathedral, and the beginnings of traffic on the square. It is still very quiet, though, sort of muted, especially now that the party upstairs seems to have dispersed. It is a morning that encourages reflection, and I am willing to sit and indulge.

And just on cue, heralded by the church bells pealing noon, the sun comes out.

On being right.

I am struck, reading back through the three years of this blog, that every spring term has been bad. The first thing I say each time I return to the blog appears to be a variant of "I thought I was going to DIE." Which does reaffirm my decision, rather!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Saturday. The traditional markt post, and other random thoughts.

I'm surprised at how much being back in Jülich feels like being home. I have even caught myself wondering if I could get a short-term (1 year?) appointment here, to wrap some of the more exciting work up.

Although the forecast had originally predicted rain, today is sunny, with a bright blue cartoon sky. Everything stands out in sharp relief against it. The umbrellas at Liebevoll leave geometric patters on the gold wood and green cushions. It is an altogether pleasant place to sit and drink coffee.

This trip is a little bittersweet. It's wonderful because the science I'll be doing and the colleagues with whom I'll be doing it are fabulous. And, of course, because I like the people and the markt here. This trip is even better, though, because the colleague with whom I had so many issue is no longer here. This frees all of us up to do some really exciting work. But the trip is also sad, because I suspect that it will be my last, as I will be leaving my current appointment in the fall.

Today's markt was quiet-ish when I arrived. That has changed rather dramatically now. But the flower stands have become a single stand (which may be just due to the fact that it's time for August holidays). Lots of bustle, and no time to catch up. I stood for awhile by the Wein und Kaese truck, feeling the breeze and letting the sounds wash over me. They are good sounds, accompanied by smiles and good wishes. I practice saying "Have a good weekend" as I take my purchases, and nod as I dodge the clusters of people talking with great animation.

Peter tells me that today's markt is for the kindern -- especially for those who do not have the opportunity to go on a real holiday. There are rides and lots more noise than I am used to. There are also police cars and firetrucks, with their accompanying officers, helping the children scramble around and find the siren. It is probably charming from a distance. But Peter will do a wine tasting later, which will be fun. And when there are less people crowded around the cheese truck, I will go taste cheeses for this week.

The apartment is well-stocked with utensils, so that I can do most of my own cooking. I did try to restrain myself at the produce stands, but I'll need to acquire more basics. One stand had a few figs (yay!), so I will check the market at the end of the street when I get tomatoes and onion, in the hopes that they will have more. I'll deal with lunches as they come, although I'm hoping to bring food rather than buy it at the casino. As much as I like the casino, it is very expensive, and my allowance will not go far. So, salads and bread-and-cheese(!). I don't have to sort it all out immediately (see, I'm growing!), since there is another markt on Tuesday, and I could always just run to the store (except on Sunday, grr).

Also, I have discovered that I do not recall essentially any of my German, and failed to bring my phrase books. I can work on the language itself, but I can't get the easy questions right now. I'll try to find one on-line to download and use (if I could find a audio one, too, that would be great).... Once again, the Mac comes to my rescue. I've found a couple of audio files on iTunes that may do what I need. And since it's only an hour, I can write them down. Worth a try!

I have an invitation for Caffe und Kuchen this afternoon. And I had to turn down another invitation because it conflicted with the first. So exciting -- almost like belonging.

Location: Currently, Berkeley, United States

I'm an academic scientist who is both abroad and a broad. I am on the road so often that I have a house solely so that my cats will have somewhere to live.

Okay, fine. If you really really want to, and don't care how long it is between mail checks, you can send email to ascientistabroad  {a}gmail{dot}com

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