Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Evening beverage: comments

I believe that the current poll should have a comment thread.

The poll: What is your preferred evening drink with company?

coffee/tea/port/brandy/egg nog/cocoa

Does it matter to you, as it does to me, who the company is?

Making the copies

A copy shop seems like a mundane resource until you realize that every place you used to like has closed or changed completely, and you need 500 booklets printed by next week. Fortunately, I found FlashPrint in Harvard Square.

I used to bring these jobs to Typotech or Kendall Press. Typotech closed some years ago, along with their well-maintained equipment and their hypercompetent staff. Kendall Press still has great press operators, but the front end has gotten too hard to deal with since the ownership change. I need to efficiently choose an available paper stock, discuss finishing requirements, confirm file specs, figure out the price, and know that the file output will be done correctly and the job will be completed on schedule. None of those steps are reliably easy any longer.

As the rep at FlashPrint said, it’s not hard. But far too many places make it hard. Most copy shops here no longer provide a comprehensive price list for simple jobs (and 500 saddle-stitched 5.5"x8.5" 16-page black-only 1/1 self-cover booklets on 60# natural white or cream smooth text with no bleeds really is a simple job). Instead, you have to request an estimate. So I requested an estimate from 5 places, expecting responses by the next morning at the latest. Place #1: no response yet. Place #2: over a day to get a (sky-high) price. Place #3: three days until a phone call saying the quote would be done “soon.” Place #4: almost 24 hours to get a quote that had the specs wrong. The winner by a long shot? FlashPrint: 7 minutes. And they have a price list you can pick up in their shop, with perfectly reasonable pricing.

FlashPrint showed me the paper they recommended and double-checked that they had it in stock, told me they’d call if they had any questions, asked if I wanted to see a proof, ran the job perfectly, and called me to let me know the job was finished two days early. Place #3 (mentioned above) said that I sounded like I was in the trade when I confirmed the job specs and confirmed that the imposition was correct in the PDF file. I’ve been buying printing for over 15 years. But FlashPrint is in the trade.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Snapdragon in late October

Photo by Michael

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Welcome to the Guardian

The Guardian now has a US-oriented web site called Guardian America, using the same clean layout as their primary site and linking to many of the same stories. Really, it’s more of a US-oriented portal to their content, and that suits me just fine. I enjoy their content, and this makes the choice of content more familiar. They are supplementing with some new material created in the US, primarily in the areas of culture and commentary. And thus we glimpse the new answer to our concerns about global outsourcing: with the current exchange rate, American writers and editors are a tremendous bargain. We’ll see whether we can adapt to the Guardian stylebook better than China’s factories can adapt to our manufacturing requirements.

In other news, tomorrow the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins will play a regular season NFL game at Wembley Stadium in London. You can read about it in the Guardian or on nfl.com or even on the horribly-named nfluk.com. (Was nfl-uk.com unavailable?) There’s even reports of a comedy routine at a press appearance by one of the Dolphins players. I’m surprised that a team owner would give up the home field advantage and home field revenue, although the Dolphins stands looked pretty empty during last week’s game and home field advantage hasn’t been doing the 0-7 team any good.

So we send over an NFL game (which we still get to watch on its regular time and channel), and we get Britain’s best newspaper partially customised in return. Free trade does work!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I want LibraryThing for the art in our home. An image of each piece, provenance, artist info, maybe some notes about what in particular I find striking or unusual. The urge to catalog is deep, but the will is rather lacking. I keep some notes scattered around, a folder of artist bios mixed in with gallery information, museum brochures, and fun postcards (my “art” folder), occasional receipts. Not exactly the 5 million pages of organized notes that Thomas Edison left behind.

The way to build ArtThing would be to position it first and foremost as a way for artists to keep their own catalog of what they create. It would be useful for archival purposes and for marketing, especially for artists who do not yet have their own web site. You could look through all of an artist’s pieces, and see which ones are for sale. You could import listings into your own catalog as a collector, and even maintain private or public wishlists. There’d be nice interfaces to existing art sales sites like Etsy, and eventually ArtThing could be its own thriving secondary market for reselling or trading pieces.

The obvious difference from books — the lack of an ISBN for an art piece — would be handled by the ArtThing unique ID number (ATid) assignment system. That ATid number would be handy for insurance lists and estate planning, and would be easy to put on the price tag or even include on the back of a print. If a signature in the corner of a nice pastoral oil painting adds value, surely an ATid number in the corner would add even more.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Art at home

In Modern Art Notes, Adams Helms offers insight from the artist’s point of view on how art pieces are or should be treated when they are placed in a home, and how much the artist should (not) worry about that. He quite sensibly explains that

works of art produced leave the studio and go out into the world, more often than not, into private collections. These private collections more often than not are in people’s homes.
While he proceeds to encourage artists to accept that and move on to making new work, the context he creates in the interview is that his own piece in his dealer’s home is being moved at his request. He has reasons, just as any artist would, and those reasons are interesting. But it is rather at odds with his overall message.

A few of my photographs are in other people’s homes, including the homes of some people I don’t know. That fact is still new enough to me that I’m not at all worried about where they’ve been placed; I’m just delighted that I’ve sold some prints. And while I can imagine having an interesting discussion with someone about where a piece might really stand out, I think that the placement process should be owned by the person who owns the art piece.

What I’ve noticed in my own home is that it’s important to have the context and placement of a piece change over time. Art in a home becomes background noise if its placement is too static; periodic changes keep the art fresh and prevent it from becoming a meaningless design element. That fits well with my belief that there is no single ideal context and placement for any given art piece, because the piece can evoke different responses from a viewer depending on the context and placement. Sadly, I don’t live in a home that could be featured in The New York Times Style Magazine. In practice, many pieces stay put and only the distracting clutter changes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Photo by Michael

When shall we three meet again?

To compensate for their production last spring of Titus Andronicus with an all-male cast, Actors’ Shakespeare Project is putting on an all-female Macbeth this fall. We went to opening night, and the show needs a lot of work.

Some scenes are done beautifully, mostly in Acts IV and V. The second half opening with the witches is hair-raising and convincingly supernatural. The scene between Lady Macduff and her son before they are killed is a touching bit of normal human interaction, with Lady Macduff striking a perfect note of harried and distracted mother trying to answer her child’s endless questions. Lady Macbeth’s unbalanced and unseeing monologue is a more unified whole than it might be, with the commentary from the observing doctor and gentlewoman practically a voiceover. Our attention is kept correctly on Lady Macbeth as she paces and stumbles about the set, our and her recollections of misdeeds reinforced by her wandering through the places where we saw those misdeeds plotted, executed, or revealed. There is no safe place on the set for us or for her to escape the memories of violence, though that idea could have been further emphasized had she exited where the audience exits.

The cast is uneven, and not in the expected way given the mix of equity actors and college students. The best performer is Victoria Bucknell (Angus, Fleance, Macduff’s son, and Young Siward), a BU college student who sings beautifully, is expressive and comfortable with the language, and conveys very different characters through different movement choices that all seem natural. Marya Lowry (Macbeth), on the other hand, is an established actor with a broad résumé in regional Shakespeare performances. According to the program, she runs Ecstatic Voice and Lamentation workshops in the US and in Europe, and I saw her hold up her end as an interesting Gertrude in ASP’s Hamlet last fall against Johnnie Lee Davenport’s marvelous Claudius. I did not expect her sing-song obscuring of the language in this show, her single-note character who expresses emotion only through how she holds her hands and whether her eyes are wide open or wider open. I enjoy Shakespeare performances more when the actors make the language feel natural. The contrast in language is most noticeable when Marya Lowry is talking to Jacqui Parker’s Banquo, who speaks much more naturally and with far more range and clarity.

Jacqui Parker also shows more apparent awareness of her surroundings and fellow actors than most of the cast, though Victoria Bucknell is the only one who is consistently fully present when she is present. Through most of the show, actors on stage who are not immediately involved in the dialogue do not react to anything they see or hear. They stiffly await their cues, moving only when necessary and trying not to distract from the person speaking. It doesn’t feel like a directorial choice so much as directorial incompleteness (or incompetence), and the lack of response definitely inhibits the audience’s response. That’s disastrous when the theater is small and the audience surrounds most of the performance space.

Using an all-female cast in this play that most famously questions gender roles should add some layers of confusion, amusement, or irony. Instead, the directorial choices reinforce stereotypes of violence as inappropriate for women (either for women to perform or for audiences to see women performing). Weapons are replaced by vaguely bloody sponges, the battle between Macbeth and Macduff is quick and uses mimed swords, and the daggers used to kill Duncan are too-small kitchen knives. The violence in ASP’s Titus was even more stylized, using water for blood, but was far more effective. This production of Macbeth is not afraid of expressing sexuality or conflict, and even moves Lady Macduff’s death onto the stage, but pulls back from the violence of the show in an odd way.

I was really surprised that so little was made of the relevance of the show to the contemporary world, particularly given that Actors’ Shakespeare Project claims to present Shakespeare “as a playwright urgently relevant to our own times.” Ross certainly sounds like he is speaking of today’s political climate when he says to Lady Macduff:

I dare not speak
much further;
But cruel are the times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves, when we hold rumour
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and move. I take my leave of you:
Shall not be long but I'll be here again:
Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward
To what they were before.
Malcolm and Macduff explore the relative horror of unchecked lust and unchecked greed in a ruler, but Malcolm’s speech is too rushed to allow the audience to relish the obvious parallels to our recent and current rulers. The show’s broadest theme is a nation falling under tyranny, but we see little aspect or effect of that tyranny. Lady Macduff’s speech about whether the innocent have anything to fear in the present times is elided entirely, despite the compact way these few lines touch on the disconnect between action and consequences, the upsetting of logic and justice, and even the gender issues that this production should be exploring:
Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence,
To say I have done no harm?
And when we have a show about a female power behind the throne and a production where women play all the roles of powerful men, during a presidential race which holds out the prospect of the most influential First Lady of recent times becoming our first female president, why is there so little resonance?

The highlight of the evening was chatting with a local theater reviewer sitting next to us about this production and many others. (He was experiencing the added dramatic tension of wondering whether his car was being towed, because the legal parking spaces around BU were mostly taken up by people going to Game 6 of the ALCS at Fenway Park.) It was exciting to talk to someone who sees far more theater than we do, and to compare notes about his recent experience seeing Patrick Stewart in Macbeth and ours seeing Patrick Stewart in The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra, to fondly recollect the period a decade ago when the American Repertory Theatre was interesting, and to discuss the RSC’s temporary Courtyard Theatre in Stratford. We may have convinced him to see the Henry VI trilogy in Stratford in February, in which case we will have done him a great service. If this production of Macbeth evolves for the better during the run, we should probably go back to seeing ASP productions late in their run as we have done in the past. However, having an opportunity to talk to this reviewer is a powerful incentive to go to opening nights. It’s an interesting question for us, and not one that I usually take away from an evening at the theater.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Reuters reported today on a Senate bill that would let victims of ID theft “seek restitution for money and time they spent repairing their credit history.” The article omits some pertinent questions, such as how you document the time spent, how you put a value on that time, how ID theft is defined, and most importantly where the restitution would come from.

ID theft has come to encompass a range of crimes, including simply using a stolen credit card. Correcting wrong charges on your credit card statement is a breeze, however, compared to dealing with new credit accounts opened in your name with thousands of dollars in charges. To restore your credit rating, each of those new accounts has to be cleared and closed properly. You have to get a police report, fill out piles of paperwork, get forms notarized, and follow up for months with letters and phone calls. In the meantime, your newly lowered credit rating can raise your interest rate for buying a car, buying or refinancing a home, or obtaining a business loan. Your credit rating affects how you’re viewed by many potential landlords and employers, determines your car insurance premiums in many states, and really has an amazing number of ways it can screw up your life. If the ID theft extends to someone else’s health care, insurance claims, or even criminal charges being attributed to you, good luck ever getting it all fully straightened out. Restitution would be nice for some of that, too.

The Senate bill probably suggests that the restitution come from either some sort of public fund or from the criminal in the rare case that someone is actually caught. It would be easy to suggest that the restitution come from the companies and government agencies who are cavalierly collecting and then accidentally revealing our Social Security numbers and other personal information. I’d prefer that the restitution come from the banks and stores that open new credit lines despite fraud alerts on the credit bureau accounts, or from the insurance companies who use credit ratings as a proxy for racial discrimination, or from the police departments who write off thefts of thousands of dollars as a victimless crime, or from the credit bureaus themselves who trade so irresponsibly in error-ridden personal information. But the ultimate solution cannot be restitution. When 8.4 million people have their identities stolen in a year, the solution has to be to stop pretending that Social Security numbers are secret. We need better data protection policies and practices, but we also need to stop treating a Social Security number as a magic password that unlocks vast riches and creates vast headaches.

The vast whirling ballet of credit card shopping that comes crashing to a halt in the television commercial when someone tries to write a check isn’t portraying individual purchases. It’s portraying the vast whirling ballet of opening credit accounts that lenders and retailers are afraid will come crashing to a halt if we implement any sort of rational security policies. From the vantage point of the corporate box in the balcony, that ballet is beautiful. It’s not so beautiful for the 8.4 million people who got trampled last year.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A time to sow, a time to reap / Wild Oats, Wild Harvest

Our local Wild Oats (formerly a stand-alone Wild Harvest location) is closing for the winter to become a Whole Foods. Yesterday was an impressive scene of controlled chaos as they put everything on sale at 40% off. The parking lot was crowded, the store ran out of grocery carts for a while, and every register was in use. It was fun going on a little shopping spree, with happy customers and happy staff. The store hasn’t done that level of business even before blizzards or holidays, but the staff stepped up to the plate and kept the lines moving quickly.

What surprised me most was that the store took a simple and honest approach to clearing out their inventory. I’ve seen a lot of stores close down, and in the past decade the inventory clearance has been run by outside companies that bring in minimum wage staff, advertise huge savings, raise the prices, and then take 10% or 15% off the inflated prices. I’ve learned to avoid those closing sales. Wild Oats brought in all of their most experienced store staff to handle the registers and took 40% off the exact prices that they were charging the day before (including sale prices). That simple and honest approach is my model for how to do business. It created quite an impression to see a large business do the same. Whole Foods clearly did a lot of preparatory work with the staff, because the staff was all friendly and competent and upbeat. I believe they’ve all been offered jobs with Whole Foods, most with pay raises, but it still must be disconcerting to see their store closing down so quickly. The way they handled this closing gives me great hopes for the Whole Foods that will open up in that location in the spring with much of the same staff. And we now have enough chocolate bars to get us through the long winter without a grocery store.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nature’s camoflage

Photo by Michael

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Duties incumbent upon me

I’m now on the local arts council, which over the next month means reviewing all the grant applications for next year to decide which art projects and cultural events should be funded and at what amounts. My personal priorities are projects that will have a long-term impact, high visibility, and use a local space that is currently underused. A mural that will stay up for 10 years is better than an art exhibit that will stay up for 2 months. An outdoor event in the middle of town is better than an indoor event that most people don’t hear about. A concert at the public bandshell that’s rarely used is better than a concert in a church basement.

There are also established priorities, such as funding events that will serve a variety of local populations (events for kids, events for retirement homes) and funding new projects. And there are legal requirements, such as not funding businesses and not funding activities that are supposed to be fully paid for by regular funding sources such as the school budget.

Arts councils are supposed to solicit public input, so: What sorts of art projects and cultural events do you think are important to provide funding for? What criteria would you use?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Monopoly: The Subprime Edition

Rule adaptations to traditional Monopoly:

1. All property prices are doubled.

2. When you buy a property, instead of paying for the property outright, you can pay 1/4 the purchase amount each of your next five turns (but not this turn). The banker must keep track of your upcoming payments on a separate piece of paper, and check each payment off when you make it. Payments are due before your roll.

3. If you do not make a payment on a property, the property is returned to the bank.

4. When a player pays rent on a property that is not yet fully paid for, half the rent goes to the bank.

5. If you roll doubles, all upcoming payments that the banker is tracking for you are doubled.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Forming a more perfect union

Larry Sabato calls for a new Constitutional Convention in a recent column in the Los Angeles Times. The column is a confusing litany of falsehoods, misrepresentations, and nonsensical arguments. He starts out his column complaining that current proposals for tackling health care or Iraq are merely incremental fixes, and goes on to propose “radical changes” such as slightly increasing the number of electors in the Electoral College. Personally, I think that an incremental fix to health care might just benefit more people.

Unlike Sabato’s suggestions, there are useful changes we could make to the Constitution. We could revoke the legal status of corporations as persons. We could add an explicit right to privacy. We could protect habeas corpus even in times of war or insurrection, make all elections direct and protect the right to vote, create a right to basic health care or education, eliminate asset forfeiture laws, and much more. The framework by which we structure our society is worth careful consideration by an informed body politic. But before we consider either incremental or radical changes, it might be prudent to try enforcing the Constitution and laws we already have.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Not about the dishwasher

Yesterday morning I started to write a post about how much I like our dishwasher. It’s a Bosch, it has very simple controls, it’s quiet, and it works really well. Then I went downstairs and discovered water all over the kitchen floor. And dripping into the basement.

Now, this is not the dishwasher’s fault, and I don’t say that because I refuse to ascribe evil motives or moral responsibility to a kitchen appliance. It’s the refrigerator’s fault. And I absolutely ascribe moral responsibility to the refrigerator. I’m leaning toward evil motives as well. I think the refrigerator was jealous of how much we prefer our dishwasher and our stove. I think the refrigerator doesn’t like the fact that we keep a secondary refrigerator in the basement, and that we look at other refrigerators when we’re out shopping. I think the refrigerator was upset that we aren’t in love with it any more, and was determined to demonstrate that it is not cold and heartless. (Although being cold is what had made the refrigerator attractive in the first place.) Maybe the refrigerator just wanted some attention, and this was the quickest way it knew to get some.

I won’t pretend that I don’t feel a sense of loss. I met the refrigerator on July 4th weekend in 1995, when I was on the rebound from the death of my first refrigerator. (I don’t consider the dorm fridges in college to have been serious refrigerators.) What started as a summer romance blossomed into a long-term relationship, even if it was mostly centered around food. It was a Maytag refrigerator, one of Maytag’s first ventures out of their traditional laundry and dishwashing domains. Like my Panasonic bicycle 20 years ago, my Maytag refrigerator caused some cognitive dissonance at first. Will it wash my food? Does it have a spin cycle for the lettuce? But the jokes quickly faded as I realized how good the refrigerator was for me. When I bought a house 3 years later that came with a full set of appliances, I brought my Maytag refrigerator with me. Now, with more than a little regret, I’m starting to accept that it’s time to move on.

Unless it’s a much bigger problem, such as a leak in our back wall that it somehow steering water onto our kitchen floor exactly where the refrigerator used to live! (We’ve moved the refrigerator to test this theory.) I’m fantasizing about disaster scenarios that will excuse the refrigerator, and I’m not sure that’s healthy. Appliances change, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t used to be a good appliance.

Besides, have you met my dishwasher?

Monday, October 8, 2007

110% coinsurance

Soon we will engage in our yearly ritual of choosing next year’s health insurance plan. I found the process frustrating last year because I was trying to figure out which insurance plan would be the right choice. Many aspects of the two plans were apples and oranges, despite both being Blue Cross PPO plans. Would I prefer a $150 copay for an MRI, or 10% coinsurance? Hard to decide. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the plan summaries are inaccurate and many of the plan details change during the year, so there is no way to make a rational choice. That will take a lot of the pressure off this year.

I’d prefer 110% coinsurance for everything short of hospitalization. I’ve seen enough medical bills for ER visits and doctor’s appointments to understand that the major benefit of health insurance most years isn’t about covering enormous unexpected expenses of major injuries or illnesses – the benefit is the insurance company pricing. ER visits that are $850 for the uninsured are $65 if you have Blue Cross. A specialist consultation drops from $200 to $38. Tests drop from $250 to $22 or even free. Medical care is suddenly much less expensive. If I could pay the insurance company pricing (100% coinsurance) plus a small surcharge in exchange for the insurance company handling the paperwork (so make it 110% coinsurance), I could afford the direct cost of routine health care.

A huge added benefit of 110% coinsurance would be that the insurance company could stop reviewing for medical necessity as a way to save money. The health care decisions could be between doctor and patient, the payment process at insurance companies could be streamlined, and many arguments about medical necessity could be avoided entirely. Everyone wins. So how do we convince Blue Cross to offer this as an option?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Edinburgh Castle in blue

Photo by Michael

Friday, October 5, 2007


A recent episode of Food Network’s Recipe for Success follows a Chicago-based woman named Hilary as she starts to develop a small business baking cookies. The cookies look amazing, and impress everyone who tries them. She sells the cookies by mail, to local theaters, and eventually through four local Whole Foods stores. She makes so little money that she has to give up her apartment and take side jobs cleaning houses. This is not actually encouraging.

The gender roles are really quite stark. Hilary has had two failed businesses before, and the only other woman featured in the episode is a sister who repeatedly bad-mouths her. Her initial loan comes from a male relative, she gets accounting advice from another male relative, she gets business advice from successful male bakers, the buyers she meets with are almost all men, the baker who she ends up contracting with to arrange larger-scale production is a man, and her housing woes are solved when her boyfriend “allows her to move in with him” to end the episode.

On the bright side, the show is realistic and open about the numbers of a small food business, and packs a lot of challenges and possible solutions into a short episode. And unlike reality television, this is television about reality. If you like the look of the chocolate caramel coffee cookies or banana bread cookies, you can place an order.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Dark data and grey literature

Thomas Goetz writes in Wired about “dark data,” the negative results that come out of many or most scientific experiments. The traditional publication process favors results that establish correlations, so studies that do not find a correlation generally do not get reported. Yet studies which do not show a correlation can be useful as well, establishing that a particular off-label use of a drug is ineffective or showing that gay marriage doesn’t actually cause the collapse of, well, anything.

Negative results are of less general interest, but are incredibly important in assessing particular hypotheses. They are also a natural consequence of broad scientific research. The sort of research that can find startling results is often the sort of research that examines factors and variables that we would not expect to be correlated. Our intuition that there is not a correlation is frequently borne out, but we should not discourage counter-intuitive inquiry.

The biggest obstacle to publishing dark data has been the lack of space in journals. Why not publish positive results rather than negative results, if space is limited? The traditional grey literature of departmental working papers and conference proceedings is a farm system for the journals, where results and ideas compete for limited attention as the best ones graduate to the big show. Goetz correctly points out that the web provides plenty of space to host massive quantities of data, but he’s wrong when he posits that this is a full solution to the dark data problem. The web has allowed an enormous expansion of the grey literature, extending downwards into rough drafts. Publishing data is a further step down from that if it is not accompanied by full explanations of the methodology used to collect and analyze the data, and if that methodology is not scrutinized by a rigorous peer review process. Goetz falls into a common misunderstanding of science in believing that data show truth independent of methodology, and any publishing scientist will tell you that there is far more to publication than dumping data at a journal’s doorstep. Dumping data on the web is not sufficient either, no matter what type of data you’re dumping.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Complexity of nature

Photo by Michael

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Adventure travel

In Death of an Adventure Traveler, Rolf Potts describes his editor telling him that American travel magazine readers

didn't want to read about journeys that were obscure or complicated; they wanted exotic challenges wherein they might test — or, at least, imagine themselves testing — the extremes of human experience.
This testing of extremes apparently is supposed to involve some limited planning, extensive shopping, and a comfortable bed. It turns out that I’ve done far more “adventure travel” myself than I had realized.

Volcano National Park on Hawai‘i is filled with cautionary signs. Park rangers casually mention that the current ranger station is on wheels and that the previous ranger station was completely destroyed by a lava flow. They warn you against breathing in the wrong place, and explain that the steam rising from the ground all around you is rainwater that has seeped down a little ways and hit magma. The large metal “danger” sign at the end of the road that was covered by a lava flow a few years ago has itself been partially destroyed. It is a fascinating and alien landscape, and I definitely recommend a visit.

I’m glad that for a couple of days I overcame my perfectly rational fear of hiking around an active volcano, but it confirmed for me that my own experience of adventure travel is not about the sense of danger or testing the extremes of human experience. I find adventure simply in being somewhere new and different where I don’t know what to expect. Exploring the ruins of a Scottish castle nobody has ever heard of was equally an adventure, partly because I took some random bus into the countryside without a map and wasn’t sure how I’d find my way back. I’ve had the same sense of adventure pulling my car over in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and following a half-marked trail into the woods to see what I’d find. Maybe my adventure palate is insufficiently refined, and I’d understand better if I read more travel magazines. But along with making the exotic destinations seem reachable, travel magazines can make them seem more familiar. And then actually going there won’t feel like an adventure, will it?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Math for math’s sake

The Center for Women in Mathematics at Smith College has started a post-bac math program for women who are considering graduate studies in math. It’s the first such post-bac math program in the country, and I really hope the idea spreads. For some, the program offers a transition to grad school after time away from academia. For others, the program offers an opportunity to build confidence and develop a more solid foundation for graduate studies. For students who do go on to a degree program, the post-bac year offers a new set of connections to other students and professors. Those connections can be invaluable during grad school in providing mentoring possibilities, maintaining external support, and easing the too-frequent isolation that grad students experience.

The program can also be a great resource for the undergraduate students in the math department. The post-bac students enlarge the math community at Smith, and are integrated into the student side of the department rather than positioned oppositionally to the undergraduates as grad students in a university setting are.

I hope this is part of a larger reworking of the academic model in this country. The academic career path toward a tenured position will likely continue to narrow and lengthen, and the resulting pressures on graduate students will worsen the competitive nature of too many graduate programs. As teaching shifts from a collegial occupation to a commuter one, the ideals of study for the sake of learning and collaboration for the sake of community should still have a place.