Monday, 21 April 2014


I can’t say that I never thought of doing something useful to earn my living. For example, teaching English. It was not until last year though that I began thinking about it seriously. Well, as seriously as I could. Doing CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) seemed like a good way to learn how to do it.

And so, some time last November, I started to look for a reasonably priced place, preferably in the sun, offering four-week CELTA courses. That’s how I learned about The Irish Academy in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: probably the best deal (and location) in the whole of Spain. On the last day of the last year, I sent an email enquiry about the course... and got an immediate response. In the following week, I filled the form and completed a short pre-interview task. I had my skype interview on 17 January and started the course exactly two months later.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

at cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars

From Novel Notes by Jerome K. Jerome:
“Thought existed before the Printing Press; and the men who wrote the best hundred books never read them. Books have their place in the world, but they are not its purpose. They are things side by side with beef and mutton, the scent of the sea, the touch of a hand, the memory of a hope, and all the other items in the sum-total of our three-score years and ten. Yet we speak of them as though they were the voice of Life instead of merely its faint echo. Tales are delightful as tales — sweet as primroses after the long winter, restful as the cawing of rooks at sunset. But we do not write ‘tales’ now; we prepare ‘human documents’ and dissect souls.”
“Our religion hangs ready-made beside our cradle to be buttoned upon us by loving hands. Our tastes we acquire, with difficulty; our sentiments we learn by rote. At cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars, high art and classical music. In one age we admire Byron and drink sweet champagne: twenty years later it is more fashionable to prefer Shelley, and we like our champagne dry. At school we are told that Shakespeare is a great poet, and that the Venus di Medici is a fine piece of sculpture; and so for the rest of our lives we go about saying what a great poet we think Shakespeare, and that there is no piece of sculpture, in our opinion, so fine as the Venus di Medici. If we are Frenchmen we adore our mother; if Englishmen we love dogs and virtue. We grieve for the death of a near relative twelve months; but for a second cousin we sorrow only three.”

Friday, 28 February 2014

aku-aku, what have I done

From Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond:

Education is a process involving two sets of participants who supposedly play different roles: teachers who impact knowledge to students, and students who absorb knowledge from teachers. In fact, as every open-minded teacher discovers, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their teachers, by challenging the teachers’ assumptions and by asking questions that the teachers hadn’t previously thought of.
In the class discussion after I had finished my presentation <on the collapse of Easter Island society>, the apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn’t sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended? One of the students asked what I thought the islander who cut down the last palm tree said as he was doing it. For every other society that I treated in subsequent lectures, my students raised essentially the same question. They also asked the related question: how often did people wreak ecological damage intentionally, or at least while aware of the likely consequences? How often did people instead do it without meaning to, or out of ignorance? My students wondered whether — if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now — those people of the next century will be as astonished about our blindness today as we are about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.

Friday, 3 January 2014

applying online

I guess everybody who started working in science 20—25 years ago would agree that applying for a job now is not what it used to be.

No, I don’t blame the internet. Just the opposite: it was thanks to internet that I got all my jobs (away from my blessed fatherland, that is). But I do blame the cancerous growth of HR departments and proliferation of incompetent HR managers.

I would stop short of calling for universal abolition of HR departments. (On a second thought, I don’t see why I should. Yeah, let’s just get rid of them. No human being deserves to be called a ‘resource’.) Nor will I reject outright the notion that somewhere there may exist intelligent, competent, compassionate, human HR managers. I never met one though.

My point, however, is that as recent as in 1990s, the HR people knew their place and did not stand between me and my prospective boss. These days I am getting a rejection letter and have no clue on whom to unleash my wrath. Head of the department? The assessment committee? The human resources? The whole damn place? I know: I... shall... unlike their Facebook page. That will show them.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

hei hei 4.605x

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
William Faulkner

And so, one more edX course is finished: A Global History of Architecture: Part 1. I do hope there will be Part 2 at some point.

I registered for 4.605x quite by accident. My mind was already set on doing different course this Fall, but since it was not on until mid-October, I decided to check what else is on offer. As 4.605x was starting in mid-September, I thought I can give it a try. (A mental note to myself: don’t do two edX courses at a time.)

No regrets, and many pleasant surprises. The course had everything one can expect from the name, viz. “architecture”, “history” and “global”, and much more: anthropology, geology, geography, ecology, religion, philosophy, economy, politics...

Monday, 25 November 2013

the importance of knowing the rules

From The Kalahari Typing School For Men by Alexander McCall Smith:
The public office to which she was admitted had that typical look and smell of government offices. The furniture, such as it was, was completely functional-straight-backed chairs and simple two-drawer desks.
This clerk was not bright, and people like that could show a remarkable tenacity when it came to rules. Because they could not distinguish between meritorious and unmeritorious requests, they could refuse to budge from the letter of the regulations. And there would be no point in trying to reason with them. The best tactic was to undermine their certainty as to the rule. If they could be persuaded that the rule was otherwise, then it might be possible to get somewhere. But it would be a delicate task.
“Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules. I am sure that this is the case. But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of rule 25. This rule is really rule 24(b), subsection (i). That is the rule that you are thinking of. That is the rule which says that no names of pensioners must be revealed, but which does not say anything about addresses. The rule which deals with addresses is rule 18, which has now been cancelled.”

The clerk shifted on his feet. He felt uneasy now and was not sure what to make of this assertive woman with her rule numbers. Did rules have numbers? Nobody had told him about them, but it was quite possible, he supposed.

“How do you know about these rules?” he asked. “Who told you?”

“Have you not read the Government Gazette?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “The rules are usually printed out in the Gazette, for everybody to see. Everybody is allowed to see the rules, as they are there for the protection of the public, Rra. That is important.”

The clerk said nothing. He was biting his lip now, and Mma Ramotswe saw him throw a quick glance over his shoulder.

“Of course,” she pressed on, “if you are too junior to deal with these matters, then I would be very happy to deal with a more senior person. Perhaps there is somebody in the back office who is senior enough to understand these rules.”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed, and Mma Ramotswe knew at that moment that her judgement had been correct: if he called somebody else, he would lose face.

“I am quite senior enough,” he said haughtily. “And what you say about the rules is quite correct. I was just waiting to see if you knew. It is very good that you did. If only more members of the public knew about these rules then our job would be easier.”

“You are doing your job very well, Rra,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I am glad that I found you and not some junior person who would know nothing about the rules.”

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

we fetishize the national boundary

From the lecture 10 of the MITx course 4.605x, A Global History of Architecture, by Professor Mark Jarzombek (Fall 2013):
One thing you can get from this course is why all the maps in your book are wrong, except in our book. So this is not right. I mean, it’s not wrong, just completely useless. I mean, who really cares if the Qin was here or there or there — the point is, what do we learn from maps? What can maps tell us about connections and connectivity? It’s not about national boundaries. In our modern world we’re obsessed. We fetishize the national boundary, because of certain tropes of international law. This was not necessarily the case in the earlier time. Yes, boundaries were important. But to do history is not about the history of the nation, national boundaries. History is about certain connections and how countries or nations rise and fall, or certain dynamics that go across region and across time.
So the Shang had five capitals. And as they got power, they moved the capital to particular places. And then as they lost power, they moved the capital to another place. And of course, with that huge populations had to move with them. Because all the bureaucrats and all the whole regime — it’s like saying, when Bush became president, the capital would move then to Texas. So you would have to build the capital, and then thousands and thousands of people would have to go down to Texas. And then comes another president and will have to build a new capital in Arkansas or Nevada or wherever. We’d be continuously building capitals and reusing them. And then of course, when Obama came in, he would burn Bush’s capital down. And then build a new one in Chicago. And then everyone would have to move up to Chicago.

Friday, 13 September 2013

important scholarly considerations

From Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith:

It was the lowest form of work in the academic hierarchy, made all the more difficult by the tendency of Professor Vogelsang to publish papers based almost entirely on von Iglefeld’s work, but under the Vogelsang name and with no mention made of von Igelfeld’s contribution. In one case — which eventually prompted von Igelfeld to protest (in the gentlest, most indirect terms) — Vogelsang took a paper which von Igelfeld asked him to read and immediately published it under his own name. So brazen was this conduct that von Igelfeld felt moved to draw his superior’s attention to the fact that he had been hoping to submit the paper to a learned journal himself.

‘I can’t see why you are objecting,’ said Vogelsang haughtily. ‘The paper will achieve a far wider readership under my name than under the name of an unknown. Surely these scholarly considerations are more important than mere personal vanity?’

As he often did, Vogelsang had managed to shift the grounds of argument to make von Igelfeld feel guilty for making a perfectly reasonable point. It was a technique which von Igelfeld had himself used on many occasions, but which he was to perfect in the year of his assistantship with Professor Vogelsang.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

keep doing science in spite of Spain

From the open letter by astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martín to the Spanish prime minister, published in El País on 19 August 2013 (the English version published in The Guardian 28 August 2013):

Afortunadamente España lidera la cruzada de las homologaciones. Fuera de nuestras fronteras cualquier título original vale, un verdadero escándalo.
Por el mismo conducto le envío las 700 páginas de certificados y documentos que tenía preparados para el día en que se convocara una plaza con mi perfil, algo que nunca ocurrió. Es la documentación requerida para acreditar la veracidad de mi currículum. Recopilar esa documentación fue una labor de investigación tremendamente gratificante. Sepa usted que en los muchos trabajos que he solicitado fuera de España la documentación requerida es algo más escueta, aproximadamente de 10 páginas: un plan de trabajo y un breve currículum, que no hay que justificar porque la comunidad científica opera con un código de honor. Si quiere un día se lo explico.
También le devuelvo la carta que la Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología tuvo el detalle de enviarme hace unas semanas a mi antigua dirección en la Universidad de Princeton. El objetivo de dicha misiva es realzar la “marca España” con un programa denominado “Ciencia Española en el Exterior”. Sepa usted que me trasladé a España hace cinco años y cuando emigre próximamente la ciencia que haga ya no será española, ni será gracias a España; seguiré haciendo ciencia a pesar de España.
Por último, y a cambio de todos estos documentos que le devuelvo, le pido tan sólo una cosa: devuélvame usted mi dignidad como investigadora, y en el mismo envío, si no le es mucha molestia, devuélvasela a toda la comunidad de investigadores en España, y no se olvide de los de humanidades.
We’re fortunate that Spain leads the crusade for academic degree validations — beyond our borders any academic degree from a reputable university is valid, a real scandal.
I am also sending you the 700 pages of certificates and documents requested to certify the veracity of my curriculum vitae, which, due to the hiring freeze, I will no longer need. Collecting all this documentation was a tremendously satisfying research project. You should know that, with the many jobs that I have applied for outside Spain, the requested documentation is slightly briefer, approximately 10 pages: a research plan and a short curriculum vitae that does not need to be backed up with certificates, because the research community operates on an honour code (I am happy to explain this principle to you if you wish).
I’m also returning the letter that the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) thoughtfully sent to my old email address at Princeton a few weeks ago. The goal of this missive was to promote the brand of Spain with a programme called “Spanish Science Abroad”. Please let them know that I moved back to Spain five years ago — and when I emigrate shortly, the science I will do will no longer be Spanish, nor thanks to Spain; rather I will keep doing science in spite of Spain.
Finally, in exchange for all these documents I’m giving you back, I make just one request: please give me back my dignity as a researcher. At the same time, if it is not too inconvenient, please give that dignity back to everyone in the research community in Spain, and please do not forget those in the Humanities.

Monday, 8 July 2013

how not to ask for financial support

From Ansel Adams at 100 by John Szarkowski:
A small part of Adams’ correspondence is devoted to trying to persuade his rich friends that his work needed and deserved support. He was, alas, not good at writing the kind of letter that might have gotten results. In 1952 Adams wrote a seven-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter to his friends George and Betty Marshall which I believe is an appeal for financial help. I am, however, not sure; and it is possible that the Marshalls were not sure, either. Adams did get a little support from his friend[s] <...> But such help never gave Adams what he needed, and it is not clear that Adams ever told any of his friends or potential supporters, in one hundred words or less, precisely what it was that he did need. Perhaps he was not sure.