Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The latest from the bleeding edge of trendiness

Spring is sort of here, so the Real Doctor and I were out for a ride on the bike trail. As we passed the usual cyclists, we caught a glimpse of what is certain to be the Next Big Thing. A youngish guy, in full racing lycra, riding at a good clip on a big-wheeled unicycle. With aero handlebars.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

End-of-quarter kvetching

Darlene, the clerk at the grocery store, asked me if the quarter is winding down. I felt it was more accurate to say that it's winding up. Eight weeks in, students are confronting the grim reality that they haven't been doing so well and that maybe they ought to do something about it. Of course, in many cases, what they do is blame the instructor.

Coincidentally, this cartoon came up on the calendar.

I have to admit that to a certain degree, the students have a point. With the distractions of moving, I am not able to give the class the type of attention I'd like to. The class size (three hundred) and composition (all frosh) hasn't helped. For instance, I typically spend a lot more time on writing, but this quarter it simply hasn't been possible. I spent the weekend confronted with an enormous stack of short essays to grade. Normally, this is an opportunity for me to have a pen-and-ink dialogue with the students: this idea is poorly expressed, this sentence is off-topic, your notions on this subject are vague, this is really nicely put, I hadn't thought of it that way. Instead, I just gave scores.

But I always think of the awful pun on horticulture: you can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think. Even though I'm not performing up to my expectations, the students have the tools at hand to do the job. I provide lots of review material, podcasts, notes, a book, extra readings, and so on. In many cases, they choose not to use them. A week and a half after an entire lecture entitled "autotrophy," I gave the students a quiz question that featured the word "autotrophy." No less than a dozen of them asked me or the TAs what that meant. I did not give them the definition. I gave them the hairy eyeball.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

This is good, and you should try it

It's spring, and asparagus is here. Our asparagus patch is still a little young. The spears that came up this year are thinner than pencils, and now we're moving away. Whoever gets the house will get a nice crop next year. Fortunately, the Sacto delta is prime asparagus-growing territory, and it's abundant at the farmers' market now.

In the book "Coming into the Country," John McPhee described the result of successfully hunting a moose. Here's a list of consecutive dinners, courtesy of Google books:
Spaghetti with mooseburger
Moose roast
Moose stew
Moose meatloaf
Leftover Moose
Leftover Moose
Moose sandwiches
Spaghetti with mooseburger
Swiss moosesteak
Leftover Moose
Roast Moose
Moose sandwiches and soup
Clam chowder
Fried Moose liver
Swiss moosesteak
Ground moose in Spanish rice
I could live on an asparagus farm, and happily eat just plain steamed asparagus every night. This just about happens during asparagus season, but once in a while I'll make something different. Asparagus pesto is really good, easy to make, and you should try it.

2-3 cloves garlic
about 2/3 c grated parmesan cheese
about 1/4 c roasted unsalted cashews
about 1/2 c good olive oil*
juice of 1/2 lemon
a pound of asparagus, steamed and cut up
a generous bunch parsley
S&P to taste

Put the first three in a food processor and frap it up. Put the rest of the ingredients in, and frap until it's the right consistency. Amounts are variable, to taste. Add more or less olive oil--more, it will be saucy and go on pasta, less, and it's dip. Either way, it's good, and you can make it in less time than it takes to boil the water for pasta.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Flora

Some Nigella from our backyard. We planted a couple of plants two years ago, and now it's spreading. All weeds should be so lovely. The Tradescantia in the background complements it nicely.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

on sudden devaluations of personal stock values

Occasionally, people will do things that just cause me to lose a lot of respect for them, and once this respect is lost, it's hard for it to be regained. Fortunately, this doesn't happen all that often, but yesterday it happened three times.

There is a student who is a regular participant at office hours. She didn't strike me as being particularly sharp, but she at least asked questions. However, her questions were getting more and more basic as the quarter progressed. At the last office hours, she asked a really fundamental question, so I asked her whether she had done the basic-review-of-facts worksheet that I gave out a week earlier. No, she answered without shyness, displaying a pristine worksheet and a cheery smile.

It's not good form to blow up at your students, so I didn't, though inside I blew a fuse. The subsequent lecture was about regulating gene expression. For a cell, having a gene and not expressing it is much the same as not having a gene. I pointed out that you remain equally ignorant by not having a review sheet, and by having a review sheet and not doing it. I doubt I will have as much patience for this student in future office hours.

Another student--also a frequent attendant at office hours, and a pretty smart one at that--experienced a sudden stock devaluation later that day. I gave the class a quiz, and she was seated near three other students who were also her sorority sisters. According to the TAs, the four of them were signalling like third base coaches at a baseball game--scratch the left ear, scratch the right ear, scratch the left elbow, scratch the right elbow, and when consensus had been reached, a sharp nod. The first student was merely being lazy; being a cheater places you many rungs lower on the ladder.

Tired from a busy day of office hours, lecture, meeting with TAs (and all the sturm and drang of moving), I headed home, but stopped in the loo on my way out of the office. There I met the third losing stock--a person who also teaches microbiology, and who should know better. He used the loo, and "washed" his hands afterwards by basically turning on the water for one second, no soap. Ignorant students might have an excuse for this, but not someone in his position. I'll be washing my hands after I shake hands with him.

Today should be better. I'm not going to be meeting anybody.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

How to feel like a complete bastard

As part of the business of moving, we must sell our house. This means that we have to fix up a bunch of stuff to make it saleable--repair potential termite damage, replace a shingle on the roof, fix a leaky bathtub, paint, and fix up the front porch, which has these big cracks running through it.

This last issue means that we're going to have all kinds of conniptions on the front porch, which means that it's a totally unsuitable place for a hummingbird to build her nest.
Fortunately, she had just started--the nest was about 1/4 built, and there were no eggs. But we could watch her fly up with a bit of fluff, tuck it in, then sit in it and wiggle her butt to get it in place.
It had to go.

So, up the ladder I went, and down came the nest. It was mostly spiderwebs, and surprisingly solid in its attachment to the cable. But boy, did I feel like the lowest, meanest cur on this planet as I took it down.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

That plus a buck-fifty will get you coffee at Starbuck’s

Both the Real Doctor and I will be leaving our current employment in June. I leave from an employment situation that other lecturers have described as akin to an abusive relationship. I have the anxiety and uncertainty of whether I’ll be employed every three months, the financial compensation that would be humorous were it not real, the lack of collegiality, and the outright hostility of the university administration. I don’t know yet what I am moving into, but I can say with certainty that it won’t be much worse. The Real Doctor, on the other hand, has a different departure. There was some testiness between her and her supervisor. This irritation--the sort of thing that leads to a movie’s producer and director citing “differences in artistic vision,” but actually meaning something far less appealing—has been sort of resolved, and sort of buried, so she is leaving on better terms.

I really doubt there’s going to be any official acknowledgement of my departure. I have rendered very useful (and hopefully competent) service to my department, but it’s not in the character of this department or any UC department to get overly worked up about teaching or the departures of staff. The situation is somewhat different for the Real Doctor. In general, the real doctors will at the very least go for a nice lunch or a dinner or cake or something. However, despite her imminent departure, no such plans have been made, which the Real Doctor finds a bit discomfiting.

It’s nice to receive recognition for one’s work. I have some evidence that I do an OK job teaching. The Real Doctor is a more-than-minimally-competent physician. Her patients seem to like her, and she takes the time to talk with them. Additionally, she does a lot of service work—organizing journal club, teaching family practice residents, and so forth. To our surprise, we both feel as if we should get some sort of official recognition for transcending mere competence.

We were talking about this during a bike ride the other day. Both of us, as soon as we had this feeling, wondered why we should have it, what exactly we wanted, and whether or not it this desire was morally objectionable. We both do our jobs, and we are both paid—exactly per contract. We are owed neither recognition nor cake. But money isn’t esteem. While money makes the world go ‘round, the esteem of peers lubricates the pivots. It’s not fungible, but it would mean a lot to me and the Real Doctor to get some sort of “good job!” from officialdom. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and it verges on greediness. I know the job I’ve done, and I need no certificate beyond my students being prepared for whatever is next in their lives.

Neither the Real Doctor nor I had a good solution to this puzzle about ourselves. So there it lies, destined in all likelihood to become a snarl of unresolved feelings when we leave in a few weeks.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Flora

Yet another orchid. Encyclia bractescens

What's buried in the garden

The Real Doctor and I are grappling with the frantic business of moving. So far this week, we have met with two realtors, a mover, three painters, and a general contractor. Monday, we meet with a pest inspector and a garden guy.

I’ve been spending some time every day trying to get some of the uglier weeds pulled out of our garden. At this point, it’s not terribly hard. Several years of persistent work have given us some very well established plants, so an hour’s toil makes a good patch of the yard look somewhat presentable. Of course, the garden is a work in progress. There are still plots that just haven’t gelled—something unsuitable got much too established, or something was established but just up and died, leaving a big dead spot. And of course, our neighbors still have vinca and St. Augustine grass, which requires unsleeping vigilance. A decade or so more would have made it perfect.

Leaving our garden will be one of the hardest things about leaving Sacramento. We have a loverly herb garden—just about every herb imaginable, six kinds of thyme, four kinds of oregano, winter savory, summer savory, rosemary, sage, chives, lemon grass, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lovage, horseradish, sorrel, and so on. It’s a joy to the nose, and not bad looking either. The plants are mature, forming nice mounds of deep green, yellow green, emerald green, olive green, gray green, and grass green. Elsewhere in the garden are fruit trees, asparagus, artichoke, the alstroemeria and irises (or irides) that my Mom gave me, and more. These replaced the wilderness of brambles and vinca that greeted us when we moved in.

All the philosophies that I use to console myself advise against attachment. This move is proving a mighty test of philosophical equanimity. Until now, I’ve never really understood attachment to a plot of land. After all, plants will grow in Oregon. But in my backyard here, there’s a bunch of time, a bunch of labor, a bunch of me and the Real Doctor. If you go out past the garage to that patch of lawn she liked to lie down on, and dig down about three feet, you’ll also find the decaying bones one of the best dogs I’ve ever known. So now, I kind of understand why patriots think that one particular bit of the earth’s surface is better than any other similarly endowed acreage.

But it could be worse, and it will get worse. My Mom’s garden is (as has been noted) better than yours, or mine, or pretty much anybody else’s. My parents are getting old and my Dad is infirm and fading into the fog of dementia. Their living situation gives them some hardship, and there are definitely mechanical aspects of their life that would be much improved by moving to an “assisted care facility” as the Real Doctor’s parents recently did. But I think it would destroy my Mom. Separating her from her house and garden—from the mature trees that she planted, from the exquisite collections of bulbs and aloes and succulents, from the landscape that she made—would be separating a body from its heart. Philosophers will counsel against attachment, and the intellect will nod sagely and agree. But reality and the heart can dissent loudly and painfully.

My inner philosopher compels me to note: I will not miss the leaky taps, the ill-fitting doors, the gentle breezes that one can feel indoors on a windy day, the unusable spaces in the kitchen, the three-quarters of the house that is uninsulated, the idiotic, outage-prone electrical system…

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The view from academia

XKCD gets it again:

Yesterday I spent three hours talking with former students who were seeking letters of recommendation. Excellent students, they're each getting a "top 5%" letter, but I was amused by how different they are from each other. Typical for UC Davis, one is a caucasian, multi-generation resident of California; one is south asian, 2nd generation; and the other is an immigrant from north Africa. They're each really smart, but I feel like their outstanding performances have widely different origins--one is moved by curiosity for the material itself, one seems to see the material as something that must be absorbed in order to get to a desired goal, and one sees it as a challenge that needs to be bested in single combat. Gotta love diversity.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Now you're thinking with chickens!

I wanted to cook something that required some eggs, so I checked to see how many were in the 'fridge. Not enough. "No problem," thinks I, "I'll just wait a couple of days and then there will be enough."

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking no longer obtains. I eventually realized this, and after a short trip to the store, made some pasta carbonara. I miss my birds. They are apparently finding their way in the pecking order of their new home--a horrible process to human eyes, but I imagine that it is vaguely reassuring to the chicken psyche.

Pretty good skiing for May

Royal Gorge stayed open for one more weekend, so I felt obligated to go and make one last use of my season pass. Also, one last trip around some favorite trails and one last visit with the Wax Curmudgeon and Curmudgeonette before we decamp to Oregon.

There's still TONS of snow in the Sierras. There's one place where the ski trail goes under some telephone wires, and I could have easily snagged them with a ski pole. So, hopefully, I'll get some more skiing in this month, and maybe even in June. One of the highlights of this ski trip was trying out my new back-country skis. They're pure fun: waxless, metal edged, a nice amount of sidecut, and light. (A sharp contrast with my klister-y, rusty-edged, straight and HEAVY older back country skis). I'm unaccustomed to such skis, so I spent an hour on this hill here going up and down. Click on the picture to blow it up and you'll see my beautiful tracks. Telemarking is ridiculously easy on these skis, and I was able to make parallel turns for the first time in my life.

What a winter!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Grade curves are evil, part MCCXXXIV.

Every quarter a number of students ask me, hopefully, if my class is graded on a curve. These students cling to a belief that a curve will somehow help their performance in class. This naive faith is as misguided as the belief that they can successfully absorb a lecture while texting and listening to an iPod. So, I patiently explain that a curve makes their grade dependent upon everybody elses, that it means that their grade communicates nothing about their understanding of the subject, and that the middle of the curve is really and truly a "C". I tell them that they should not want a curve, and that curves are intrinsically evil.

Here's another prop for my argument. It's an article from the NY Times about law schools that hand out lots of merit scholarships, but because they grade on curves, it is mathematically impossible for the majority of the scholarship students to maintain good enough grades to keep their funding. Pretty skanky on the part of the law school, and another reminder that grade curves are intrinsically evil.