Posted by September Blue Sunday, 4 October 2009 2 comments

Dear Internet, I am ill. And I complain to you because everybody else in my life is fed up of hearing about it. At least, I'm pretty sure they are; I'm fed up of hearing about it, and I'm the one doing the sneezing. Three and a half weeks this thing has plagued me, sneaking up on my immune system in some complicated pounce-and-retreat pattern. Three times I've learnt that feeling like I've finally shaken it off only means it's crept away to regroup and discuss tactics, all the better to launch a new assault that leaves me waking up feeling like I've been beaten up by a scarecrow. And it's not like I'm very ill - no more than a very persistent cold, really - but still.

Fortunately, I can work from home. Less fortunately, I am useless at working from home. (And besides, I'm currently at my parents' several hundred miles away, but that's not the point.) But I have an article that needs writing, on the basis that if I submit it next week it'll maybe end up getting published by mid-2019, and the article did not get written on Friday's long train journey like I wanted it to be, because on Friday's long train journey I gave up on trying to wait out the pestilent lurgy, curled up in my seat by the window, and went to sleep.

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Posted by September Blue Thursday, 1 October 2009 3 comments

There was one newspaper headline I saw when I was thirteen. Not only one, obviously; there must have been hundreds in that year, either read carefully or skimmed at bus-stops or, once, cut up to make into a school project (some poster about animal testing I did in a ransom-note style, oh wasn't I cool). But there's only one that I can remember. The story was about men falsely accused of rape, and the headline was 'THE REAL DATE RAPE VICTIMS.'

I couldn't tell you now where I was when I read it; I couldn't even tell you what newspaper it was in, although I do remember, surprise surprise, that it was a tabloid. I can tell you about that headline, though. It was in capitals in a serif font, with the word 'REAL' underlined. On the left-hand side, just underneath 'THE', was a picture of one of the men in question, slightly blurry, looking straight ahead at the camera. He was going bald. I didn't buy that newspaper - I didn't even pick it up - but God damn did it make an impression.

I was fairly naive as a thirteen-year-old, but I knew what "rape" meant. I even knew what "date rape" meant, after a fashion. I understood that the world was full of bad things that could happen to you and bad people that could hurt you. What I didn't know, what I learnt from reading that headline, was that rape was not generally considered a big thing. And of course, nobody ever actually says that; everyone agrees that rape is a very serious and terrible thing, oh yes, we should lock these people up and throw away the key, etc, etc. It's just that most 'rapes' aren't really rape, you see. Obviously, if you are a sixteen-year-old virgin and some troll-like stranger grabs you off the safe and well-lit street you are walking down on your way to run errands for your sick grandmother, well, that's rape. But if you knew the man who raped you? If you'd been drinking beforehand? If you were out on your own late at night on a dark street? If you were wearing skimpy clothes? If there weren't any witnesses? If you didn't physically fight back? If you could, conceivably, be the kind of woman who might choose to have sex with a particular man you found attractive? Oh, well, in that case...

This is what I took from that headline: if you are ever raped, you are on your own.

This started off as a comment to Flavia's post on students and the subject of rape, in light of the Polanski story. Some of the most depressing teaching-related moments I've had have concerned rape, and I wanted to talk about what those students had said, but on reflection, they're not really the issue. If a 19-year-old girl can happily write that in the short story we were reading, one character's rape 'can only be assumed to be partly her fault, as she was flaunting herself a little too much earlier on', the problem is whatever we've been telling them all their lives. Most rapes are not bad. Most rapes are not rape. Most rapes are, at least partly, her fault.

The rape conviction rate in the UK is dismally, appallingly, unbelievably low. For England and Wales, it's below 7%; for Scotland, it's below 3%. And that's only the cases which are reported to the police, which most cases, obviously, aren't. I know several women who've been raped, none of whom reported it to the police. If I was raped, I don't think I'd report it either.

On the face of it, the Roman Polanski case would seem to be the absolute, undeniable, immediately-abhorrent-to-everyone kind of rape that even people who write articles about 'REAL DATE RAPE VICTIMS' would condemn. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, a girl who was crying and begging him to stop. He was initially charged with that crime, but under a plea bargain, pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor. When it looked as if the judge might reject the plea bargain, Polanski fled the country. Surely we're not going to excuse this.

Unless we're the film industry. Or half the Internet. In which case, the 'REAL RAPE VICTIM' was... Polanski, apparently.

They're opposed to real rape! Of course they are! That would be terrible! But, but, in this case, see, it's different, because some of Polanski's friends said she didn't look thirteen. And because she'd had sex before. And because she recognised the drugs Polanski gave her, and as everyone knows, it's impossible to rape anyone who's ever had sex or taken drugs before. And because she wanted to be an actress. And because, hey, we don't know he did it, right, even though nobody involved in the case has denied he did it, even though he's admitted he did it, because after all, women lie about rape all the time. And because the case was mishandled, and obviously the response to that shouldn't be okay, let's have a trial and then let him make any appeals he wants to make, but should instead be the dropping of all charges. Because he's had terrible things happen to him in the past. Because he's been 'punished enough', what with not being able to pick up his Oscar in person. Because he's in his seventies. Because it was a long time ago now. And because he was arrested at a film festival, my God, is nothing sacred?

But they're not excusing rape, oh, no. They're just pointing out that this rape probably didn't happen, or was probably her fault anyway, or probably shouldn't be prosecuted. They're just saying, is all. It's complicated.

There are, I'm sure, a lot of thirteen-year-old girls reading the headlines about the Polanski case now. They're learning that if they ever get raped, we probably won't consider them the real victims. And the worst thing is, they're right.

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damn you, Facebook

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 27 September 2009 0 comments

Firstly: for arranging yourself (and I blame you entirely for this, Facebook) so that I accidentally Liked someone's rather miserable status update yesterday. Argh undo undo! There is no social etiquette yet devised to handle such situations.

Secondly: so, one of my old friends from my small home town has been involved with the younger sister of someone else I know from said small town for some years now. They bought a house a while ago, have one child together, all happiness. But apparently no more. Because something happened, and now they have broken up - I think? I am guessing? - and all I know about it is a group invitation, by my old friend, to a group called something like '[Old friend] admits he was a total, total idiot for losing [girlfriend]', with the stated aim of the group being to get as many people as possible to join and witness his public humiliation in this fashion, so that Girlfriend realises how much he regrets whatever unspecified thing he did. Even though he knows she'll never take him back. But just so she knows how sorry he is.


I wouldn't disagree that he did a Very Foolish Thing, whatever the foolish thing in question was. And he does indeed seem very, very sorry. But... seriously, no. Bad idea. Absolute worst idea in the world if your aim is to make the girlfriend less pissed off with you. Because I can guarantee you, from her perspective, this does not look like 'Oh, he really is sorry, maybe I should reconsider my kicking-him-out-of-the-house stance.' It looks like 'Fantastic - not only has he done [unspecified Bad Thing], but now he's passive-aggressively recruiting everyone I know into the campaign for me to take him back out of pity.' Desperately regretful ex-boyfriends of the world, take my word for it: this is not going to help. Leave her alone.

Facebook, however, gives me two responses to this situation: 'Join This Group' or 'Reject Invitation'. Nuanced, it isn't.


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Posted by September Blue Friday, 25 September 2009 0 comments

Down in London for work the other day, with a long, long day between travel. I've never liked London. It's big and incomprehensible and dusty, and you never know where the hell you are. But it does contain the British Library, which will forever be a mark in its favour, and it also contains my little brother, which I remembered the night before leaving. Ah, well, he's not at work, he's easy to get hold of.

Actual phone conversation with my brother:

"Hello sister!" [Not pseudonymising; he actually calls me that.]
"Where are you? I thought we were meeting up at half past."
"Yeah, but I can't work out how to get there. Where's the best tube station for the British Library?"
"I don't know you live here."
"Ohhh... [pause] King's Cross, okay? Meet me by the stairs."
"Which stairs?"
"The stairs."
"Oh right."
"See you in fifteen minutes, okay?"

Twenty-five minutes later:

"I can't see you. Meet you by the exit onto Euston Road?"
"I'm already there! By St Pancras."
"Well, you're not, because I'm already there and I don't see you."
"Right. Location. I can see the road, um, a man selling newspapers..."
"I don't think that's going to narrow it down, baby brother."
"King's Cross is on my left."
"King's Cross is on my left."
"Mmm. I'll ask a policeman."
"You - what?"
[Fuzzily, just about audible:] "Excuse me? Hello? I'm trying to meet my sister, but she doesn't know London very well. Do you know anywhere that's good to meet someone here?"
[Even more fuzzily:] "Oooh, depends. Where's she coming from?
[Still fuzzily:] "She says she's at the underground by St Pancras. But I don't think she is. But she can see the station."
[Still fuzzily:] "You could try King's Cross?"
[...Inaudible fuzziness...]
[My brother again:] "Okay, the information point at King's Cross. Can you find that?"

I found that. He introduced me to his friend as 'my sister, who has weird thumbs', I described being mortified by proxy that he actually asked for directions, he explained that this is what policemen are for in London, tsch, etc.

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They're BACK

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 23 September 2009 0 comments

There are students all over the city. New students, fresh and wide-eyed. And my enthusiasm for working with first-years, it turns out, does not extend to having to share a city with them. I'm not usually the kind of person who can be chafed into a constant low-level bubbling rage by the presence of Other People Being Annoying, but first-years moving slowly across campus in groups of 25... grargh.

Students coming back means freshers' week, and freshers' week means NOISE, especially on campus during the day. There was one very loud outdoor party recruiting for something-or-other which went on for so long that plans were devised to shut it up so that some of us could get on with work (specifically, my boss and the dean were going to head down there and party like it was 1979 until the whole thing dissolved through terminal uncoolness). Also, it means that grand old British tradition of the POSTER SALE!!!!, which you have to write with that many exclamation marks, and the people handing out flyers, who even tried handing them to me and one of my colleagues the other day ("Aww! No, but thank you so much!"). And it also means, for some of us, a desperate scramble to timetable classes around students' other classes, because we do not have any kind of central timetabling system to do that for us.

I don't know why we don't have central timetabling. The last place I worked had central timetabling, all the places my friends work have central timetabling, but here, you say 'Why isn't this done centrally?' and you get baffled looks. Why, nobody does this centrally! It makes much more sense to work out when compulsory classes should be by getting all the students to vote! Even though that inevitably means saying 'Okay, who actually can't make Thursday at 4?', and then getting annoyed with students who say they can't because they're working that day, because we shouldn't have to organise their classes around their lives. And I agree that we shouldn't, but perhaps the students wouldn't think otherwise if we weren't asking them to pick times for their classes in the first place, maybe?


Students are back, and now I have to teach them stuff I hadn't even heard of myself until this year. So. Fingers crossed.

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Posted by September Blue Thursday, 10 September 2009 2 comments

Indications that you should probably just put down the 18th-century documents and call it a day:

1. Mentally reading all the long Ss as Fs, no matter how much better you know.

2. Finding the above hilarious.

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Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 8 September 2009 0 comments

My flat is leaking. Only a little, to its credit, but still more than I would prefer from a flat. And quite persistently, too; it's filled a bucket four inches deep with strangely-coloured water since this morning. I need that bucket, dammit.

This is one of the only good points about renting, though: when the elements start trying to get into your living room, it's someone else's expensive problem. Like my last flat but one, where this happened:


This crack grew, and grew, and spidered its way across half of the flat, until it spanned three rooms, ran down outside walls, and disappeared off into the hall outside. The ceiling right above my bed started sagging in a bad way. And my landlord had decided to kick me out in order to sell the place the week before, which made the "You know that crack in the ceiling you said just needed a bit of Polyfilla? Well, not so much" call that much sweeter.

(You might notice that the above picture looks like some cracks have already been plastered over. My landlord said this is because 'it's old and the plaster cracks'; the tenant before me explained that the ceiling had partly collapsed on the tenant before her. Or not actually on the first tenant, but she came home from work to find her bed covered in rubble. I sped up the moving out.)

So, things could be a lot worse than one little leak.

But still. Ugh.

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And no pre-teaching nightmares yet, either!

Posted by September Blue Monday, 7 September 2009 1 comments

The new term is starting, and soon I get to teach again. EXCELLENT. I've missed teaching so much that I keep wanting to grab passing undergrads by the shoulder and Explain Things To Them, but since this is generally frowned upon, I'm settling for explaining to new TAs that they should care about the ongoing pay disputes starting right now. (Sure, they always work it out eventually, but universities get maybe two years of 'Oh, I don't even care about the money, I'm just glad they're letting me teach!' first.)

This last term was the first in which I didn't teach anything since I started during my PhD, and that's a strange thing to experience. I do sort of understand why so many of the academics I know highlighted the break from teaching as a fantastic thing about my job; the research I'm working on has involved a fairly steep learning curve, and yeah, I'm glad I didn't have to juggle that with the teaching loads I've had before. But I like teaching. And I miss teaching. And truly, I do not say this as a naive first-year TA who does not understand what teaching can do to the time you thought you had in a working week.


(The last batch of marking I did. 83 essays, two thousand words each, at maybe half an hour per essay averaged out over the lot. Five days to mark them. Add in writing a lecture and planning tutorials for two courses in that same five days, and a library job that was just over thirty hours a week at the time, and I have known pain.)

(Also, the pile of papers on that desk were specifically complained about by two of the department secretaries, since even thought that was understood by everybody including the office staff to be my desk and nobody else ever used or needed it, all desks in that room were officially hot desks, and thus Should Not Have Paper Left Lying Around Like This All The Time.)

(Also also, that's the same pile of papers that almost got thrown away by one of the secretaries soon after I told the department I was going to be leaving for my current job. Soon after like days after, while I was still around, and thankfully a friend who was in the office at the time took the stuff back out of the bin-bag and kept it for me. My former department could get a bit tetchy over former PhD students getting jobs that weren't hourly-paid teaching.)

(Aaaaaanyway. Moving on...)

I'm not teaching very much this time round, and what I am teaching is not in an area I've taught anything even close to before. Which is fine. Nice change. Good for the cv, etc. But I also won't be teaching my absolute favourite thing to teach, which is first-year classes - for preference, first-year classes made up of students who don't really want to do English and aren't sparklingly brilliant at it either. I love these classes. I don't really understand why everyone else doesn't, and why the teaching most desired seems to be final-year or postgraduate-level classes in your own specialist area; I've taught upper-level undergrad classes in my own area, and in an area that wasn't my own, and they were a lot of fun, but they're definitely a different kind of fun than teaching the first-years. It's a whole different kind of teaching, in fact. And I think it's a shame when new TAs already see first-year teaching as an unpleasant obstacle to be hurdled in some kind of academic trial, so that you can get onto the good stuff.

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"Please press 8 to speak to a customer service representative."

I don't know why it's 8. Options 1-4 are about borrowing money, moving money, or opening accounts in which to keep more money. Option 5 I forget; options 6 and 7 don't exist. One of these days, I'll press 6 and see what happens. But not today.

"Hello, Dr Blue. How can I help you?"
"Hi! I'm calling about a letter you sent me a couple of days ago."
"It says you're reducing the interest-free portion of my overdraft to £1000, and that you're charging a fee for that, because I went over my overdraft limit a few months ago. And you always charge a fee for doing anything with overdrafts more than once in a six-month period."
"Right. That's our policy. Any time you request a change to your overdraft arrangements -"
"Okay, but, I didn't request it. The letter you sent me says it's just an automatic thing, because this is Year 2 of a graduate account."
"Yes. That's how they work."
"And I'm getting charged for this because this arrangement happened after I went over my overdraft limit before."
"Yep... yep, I can see that from your record here. That's why they charged you."
"But if I hadn't gone over my overdraft limit before that arrangement, I wouldn't have got charged?"
"Well, not if you hadn't requested any other overdraft limits before then, no."
"Right. See." Take a breath. "It's just, you already did reduce the interest-free portion of my overdraft to £1000 a few months ago. I have that letter here from you saying so. It's dated June the 8th. And that was before I went over my overdraft limit. So... why am I being charged now?"
"Can I put you on hold for a minute, Dr Blue?"
"No problem."

No problem at all, because I have beaten the bank, smugness smugness victory. They cannot possibly dispute this. I have two letters in front of me saying the exact same thing about reducing my overdraft, except one of them's dated June and one of them's dated August. They cannot possibly charge me for changing something in August when that change already happened back in June. They cannot possibly.

Oh, but they can.

I was going to cover the rest of the conversation here, but it got lengthy and involved a disproportionate amount of "What? No, but... what?". So, to summarise:

1) They have no record of the earlier letter on their system. As far as they are concerned, the overdraft changes are happening at the end of September only, and thus I am liable for the fee.

2) After me pointing out a little snappishly that I am LOOKING AT THE LETTER RIGHT NOW and it SEEMS PRETTY OFFICIAL-LOOKING TO ME, glossy paper and everything, they explained that they can't see it because 'matters to do with graduate accounts are dealt with by the branch, and we are very limited as to what communication from the branch we can see on our systems.'

3) After me pointing out that it does not say it has come from the branch, that the contact details given are the central telephone banking number rather than the branch, and that it is signed 'Colette Nugent, Head of Customer Communications', they told me to go into the branch in person and have them explain it to me.

4) After me pointing out that a) the branch is 250 miles away and b) the letter really honestly looks pretty centralised to me, they told me that it has to be sent from the branch, because the branch deals with specific matters about the exact amount your overdraft is for, while their letter is not about specific amounts and interests and is just a 'general overdraft review', so it's really not the same letter at all.

5) After me pointing out that the two letters said the exact same thing, about the exact same arrangements, quoting the exact same amounts, about the exact same account, with the only difference being that the formatting was better in the first letter, oh yes I went there, they said they could not hear me properly on this line and could I phone back during branch opening hours please.

I suggested I write to them instead, and that way I could send them a photocopy of both letters and they could clear up the mystery from their end. They said sure, and I was welcome to address that to the manager of my local branch.


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Some points

Posted by September Blue Monday, 31 August 2009 3 comments

1. It rains. It rains and rains and rains, and people complain about British summers like they don't do this every single year, like the rain just isn't miserable enough without adding a layer of punctured expectations re: Mediterranean Augusts on top. I am getting used to the smell of my borrowed raincoat and the limited view from a hood pulled tight around my face. (But... I sort of like the rain, if I can watch it through a window or go outside wrapped in enough waterproof material that it can't get me. It makes me happy. This is my secret.)

2. I have to talk to my boss about my career plans, which first of all requires having career plans. I don't. Not really. I have a keen and pressing desire to keep getting paid the amount I do now, and if I could get to stay at the same desk and do the same things that would be absolutely peachy. But career plans, in terms of specialising in particular fields and so on... eh. I don't know. Honestly, I don't like the way a lot of research in lit-crit gets done, for countless reasons which I am sure I will be expounding upon at length for the rest of my life, and... and... maybe I want to do something I'm excited about. Or at least enthusiastic enough that I have a chance of carving out my own niche in. Or at least, nothing to do with my PhD ever again, please, please, please.

3. Publishing. Sweet God in heaven, what is wrong with publishing in the arts? How can it possibly take whole years to get something into print? Some of us have careers to bite our nails over, here. Also, some of us have to deal with scientists making smug comments about how long it takes to crank up the Gestetner, and it would be nice if that didn't sound quite so plausible.

4. I found a dead spider in my flat the other day, and it was so sad. No, but bear with me. Dead spiders are always sad. Live spiders in my flat, fine; live spiders can spend their days hurrying around in that busy, serious way spiders have, and I can accept quite happily that me and the spiders live parallel lives in the same space. Our worlds overlap. But dead spiders just remind me that the world of the spiders is a hard, cruel place, red in tooth and mandible. I feel like somehow I've let them down.

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Blame it on the cavemen.

Posted by September Blue Friday, 28 August 2009 2 comments

Men prefer websites designed by men, says the Telegraph:

The differences spring from our caveman ancestors, said Gloria Moss, a specialist in human resources.

Our caveman ancestors being, of course, very interested in web design. 'Thog not hunt mammoth! You hunt mammoth. Thog busy trying to add animated 'Under Construction' GIF to Lascaux cave paintings right now.'

See, this is what annoys me about this evolutionary psychology gender stuff. It is always so self-evidently bullshit, and yet somehow beginning said bullshit with the words 'our caveman ancestors' is enough to get it reprinted everywhere with an editorial straight face. Behold:

Men prefer to design and use websites that use dark colours, straight lines, little detail, prominent and regular typography and which look three-dimensional.

They also prefer sites with moving objects, machines, tall buildings, violent themes, male figures and caricatures. Women prefer rounded lines, more colour and detail, unusual typography, static objects, low rise buildings, female figures and smiling faces.

Leaving aside for now the fact that these sound like some hellishly ugly websites, how does this even make sense? Men prefer websites with little detail, while simultaneously preferring websites with 'moving objects, machines, tall buildings, violent themes, male figures and caricatures'. Also, men prefer to look at tall buildings while women prefer to look at low-rise buildings, because our cavemen ancestors had very strong ideas about who should get to live in skyscrapers. What the hell, honestly.

Also, 'Stone Age' is a fairly vague term, especially if you're going to talk about that being 'when humans lived in hunter-gatherer communities.' Palaeolithic, hunter-gatherers, Ice Age. Neolithic, invention of farming, agriculture-based communities. Geocities, much later (although sometimes still described as Stone Age). Development of various forms of human society over the past million years, actually quite complex.

And... typography. Typography. You would think that, given this article is talking about fonts invented within living memory, given that there was no typographic anything back in the Ice Age, given that the whole idea of printing was invented so recently that it's hardly any time at all in the history of our species, that surely there cannot be any way at all in which 'women like Comic Sans more than men do' can be blamed on our distant ancestors. Surely there's no way to argue nature over nurture when nature doesn't even apply. Surely.

But, no.

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Posted by September Blue Thursday, 27 August 2009 3 comments

I don't know what I've done this week. And there are definitely things I have done, what with all the meetings and the typing and the sighing at computers and the crossing things off lists, but maybe there hasn't been enough of that last one, because I can't think of a single thing I've done this week that's more specific than 'um, work'.

Here's one non-work accomplishment, though: I have Sorted My Clothes Out. Not in the sense that some of my more fashion-savvy friends would like, but in the sense of dividing the things I wear from the things I haven't worn for years, am never going to wear again, and no longer even like. Behold, the pile halfway through:

Photo 6

The checked shirt on the bottom, I've owned since I was sixteen. The cream jacket near the top, I wore once for ten minutes three years ago before getting annoyed at the label prickling my neck and taking it off. The black and white thing on the far right there might be a tea-towel, now I come to look at it, and I don't remember what the black thing on top even is, but clearly I am not going to miss either of them.

There has been something of a purge of long skirts. I might regret this come winter, but truly, I think me and long skirts have gone the way of me and long hair. I've had it with stepping on hems, for one thing. And also, for the amount of space they take up, they are truly satisfying things to throw on the Banished Clothes pile as it grows and grows and grows.

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I miss the library

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 25 August 2009 1 comments

I miss my library, where I used to work. I don't necessarily miss working there - it was a good job, but not an incredibly well-paid good job, and it had its fair share of dust and boredom and people who refused to pay their fines because This Is Ridiculous* - but I miss the place.

The university I work for now does have a library. It's a very good library, in terms of numbers of books. But I have gripes in terms of other things. Gripes, I tell you.

Firstly: Libraries of the world, you can have as many loan periods as you like, but only if you have that many loan types to go along with them. The answer to 'How long can I get this book out for if the catalogue says it's a Such-and-such Loan?' should not be 'Well... either 24 hours, or two weeks, or sometimes a month. Or it might be different. It depends on the individual book, really.' Library staff of the world will not thank you for anything that encourages people to haggle at the circulation desk, belieeeeeeeve me.

Secondly: While I appreciate all libraries everywhere are pushed for space, it makes it a bit easier to find stuff if there's some kind of consistency in where you put it. I mean, it's fine to have the journals for one subject right next to the books in that subject area, or to have lots of different subject journals pooled together in one central journal area, or even to have them in some kind of offsite storage, if that's needed. But you probably shouldn't have all three systems going at once.

Thirdly: Nobody I have grumbled about this too believes me, but honestly, I speak the truth: letting people renew overdue books online is not only possible, but actually makes sense. You can tell the system to do this and just add the fine to the user's record! You can! And then you can reserve the sudden avalanche of books through Returns and seriously pissed-off users for people who are holding onto books that someone else wants. Also, it's possible to change the records for all graduating students such that they can't take books out until beyond the date they graduate, and having a system that relies upon 'we can't actually enforce this in any meaningful way, but please bring the books back?' is a bit silly.

Fourthly: The carpets are grimy.

What it does have going for it, though, is that none of the heavy four-foot-long light fittings have fallen out of the ceiling and crashed to earth in a dramatic way, which happened at my last library, as I found out about when I went in for my shift to find the areas under 20% of the light fittings cordoned off on safety grounds and most of the staff in a huge huddle by the circulation desk talking in excited tones about the cowboy builders who'd done a shoddy job of all this back in the 70s (people could have died!, or so I am reliably informed). 'Also,' said my boss, 'remember that no student is allowed in any of the cordoned-off areas at all.'
'They'll be furious if they can't get the books,' I said after she'd gone. Foolishly. Naively.
There was an awkward silence. People looked at me sympathetically.
'Oh, they can get their books,' said my fellow library minion Dr K. 'They just can't get the books themselves.'
'So, wait, does that mean...'
'Our red shirts and tricorders are in the stationery cupboard.'
We could have died.
Or so I am reliably informed.

*This was the most common objection to fines, and I never got it. So... you accept that you took the book out, that you knew what date you should have brought it back, that you didn't bring it back on that date, and you're disputing the 20p fine because you, and I quote, 'can't believe this'? Okay, then.

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What my desktop looks like

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 22 August 2009 2 comments

Picture 1

The background picture is a photo I took at an aquarium not long ago. I'm quite pleased with it; that fish was not for sitting still and having its picture taken.

This is much neater than the desktop normally looks, because I tidied it before using the computer for a conference presentation in July. The two folders below the hard drive are labelled 'Stuff' (i.e., everything that was on the desktop before I stuffed it into a folder) and 'Paper'. The pdf below them is a live demonstration of the inevitable march of entropy over our meagre efforts of organisation.

The dock (bottom of the screen, as is its rightful place), from left to right:
1) Finder, smiling happily away.
2) iCal, without which I would be screwed. Paper diaries never worked for me.
3) Preview, saving the masses from Acrobat Reader since Feb 2008 (and by 'the masses', I mean 'me')
4) iTunes. The screensaver I have is the one that shows the album covers of all the music you own, in selections based on a) who's in the room and currently viewing the screen and b) the embarrassment potential of the 'You own THAT?' factor. It's quite a complicated algorithm. I'm impressed.
5) iPhoto, which I don't use, much to its disappointment. ('Hello! Look! I see you plugged in something which could possibly be interpreted as a camera! Look! I'm over here! Look!')
6) Safari. I love Safari. Mostly I love Safari for how well it works with the multi-touch trackpad - I can bump up the text size of any page I'm viewing by moving two fingers about a quarter of an inch, which is incredibly helpful for people like me who have terrible eyesight and a tendency towards laziness.
7) Spaces. I don't know why that's even there; the dock icon is not the most efficient way to use Spaces. (Non-Mac people: Spaces does this.)
8) Scrivener! Best writing software ever ever ever.
9) Mail. Like Entourage, but on the side of good.
10) MarsEdit, a handy blogging client (I'm using it right now). Blogger's web interface is clunky, and I like being able to add pictures with minimal effort. (Many of my software choices are motivated by laziness.)
11) Delicious Library, excellent and wonderful library-cataloguing software. It works like this:
a) You hold a book barcode up to the webcam
b) Your computer goes 'Beep!'
c) Delicious Library adds the book to your virtual shelves, based on the ISBN you told it, while reading out the book's title.
There's more too it than that, but do you really need any more?
12) TextWrangler, another text editor I use for HTML and XML. (Okay, not so much HTML, or this blog would look better. I'm working on it. Lazily.)
13) Flickr Uploadr, for uploading photos to Flickr (no!) without having to go through the web interface.
14) iChat. I don't use it that much, but it just looks so nice.
15) Pages. Begone, Microsoft Word! (I don't actually mind Word for Mac that much, but it will not play nice with Spaces, so the hell with it. Document windows should not actually run away from me.)
16) GraphicConverter. Aww, GraphicConverter! I've been using some version of this for about twenty years. Basic but wonderful image-editing software. I mostly use it for flicking through the 83 photos I took of one particular fish to find the single non-blurry one.
17) Tweetie, a Twitter client.
18) Sims 3. Whaaaaat?
19) A Terminal window, which is only there at the moment because...
20), a Java program I'm getting used to, won't do things the easy way. Oh, no.
21) Photoshop Elements. This is both useful and incredibly frustrating. Save -> "Your request could not be completed because of a program error." WHAT? Bah.

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Community, Our Priority

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 18 August 2009 1 comments

There's a noticeboard in the building where I live. It is used in the same kind of way that the fridge was used for leaving Post-Its on back in my shared student flat days, which means it's comedy gold.

(I wish I'd taken some kind of photographic record of the Post-It wars in some of my old flats, too. The best one I can remember read something like 'Thank you VERY much for eating the LAST of my cereal so I couldn't have any for my breakfast this morning. I don't steal your cereal, do I?', beneath which was written in somebody else's handwriting 'Yes you do.' Which was a fair point.)

Anyway, the noticeboard is currently full of a series of notices addressed 'To All My Neighbours', penned by one person whose a) sort of has a point but b) isn't exactly making the best of it.

The problem, it seems, is that children who don't belong in the building are being allowed into the building by people who do, and are running around on the stairs or shooting up heroin in the lift-shaft or whatever kids do round here. (Okay, except for the heroin. They're just being accused of running around and making a noise, from what I can tell.) So while a notice reminding people that the whole point of a security system is that you don't just let anybody in when they press the buzzer would be fair enough, a notice beginning 'It's summertime, and the darling little demons from the area want to come in and play in our habitat' is... maybe not the best way to go about it? Maybe? Especially when you follow it up with 'Please please PLEASE stop granting entry to those scallies'? Oh, I don't know.

Anyway, what I wanted to share was the Post-It note (...of course) attached to these notices by someone else:



(Sorry about the blurriness, but I loved the snippet of the poster below it enough to keep the photo anyway.)

So... your daughter lives in this building, but you call the police every year? Although you don't live here? And she doesn't, because... she doesn't want to? She hates the phone? She thinks maybe the police are a bit of a disproportionate response to kids running up and down the stairs? And you don't live here? But you are invested enough to leave Post-Its on the noticeboard? What is going on here?

The temptation to add another Post-It asking people not to grant entry to non-residents with grudges who want to leave lengthy messages on OUR noticeboard is almost overwhelming. But I shall resist.

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And now, you must look at my holiday pictures.

Posted by September Blue Monday, 17 August 2009 5 comments

Ah, the sparkling turquoise seas and golden beaches of the Caribbean:


Or, as this actually was, the sparkling turquoise seas and golden beaches of a small island on a more northerly latitude than Moscow. Yeah, you can keep your crowded beaches and your twelve-hour flights; we got a tiny little propellor plane to the Outer Hebrides, and woke up to this view every morning. Oh, yes.

Although, the plane? Tiny. Tiny tiny tiny. I've been on small propellor planes before, but none where Row A was empty because that's where the pilots left their bags. Left their bags so that they could reach for anything they wanted without leaving the cockpit, that is. But, that's how it can land at airports that look like this:


(That's a different beach from the beach above. This one has a windsock.)

The island has half the population it used to, and that wasn't much to begin with. (As with much of this part of the world, the population decline was in the 18th and 19th centuries, back when sheep-farming meant big money and ships to North America were a useful way to get rid of all those now-excess people living on your land.) The next island we stayed on was even smaller; the owner of the B&B told us it would only be five minutes walk away from the pier where the ferry dropped us off, but "if the weather's really foul, just go into the ferry terminal and ask him to give Mary a ring, and I'll come and pick you up."


We walked, though - and it was worth getting eaten alive by midges to see this.

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Conversation with my parents

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 8 August 2009 2 comments

via a mobile, on speakerphone, in their car.

"When's your flight?"
"Tuesday lunchtime, and then we're away till -"
"WATCH OUT Jesus Christ."
"It's fine, he's just going too fast down FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE this hill and I can't see over this plant."
"What plant? I thought you were going to the sheepdog trials?"
"No, that was yesterday. We've just come back from the garden centre."
[My dad's voice:] "With a hoverfly!"
[My mum again:] "Oh, yes, there's been a hoverfly hovering about six inches over this plant since we picked it up, and it's still doing it. We have our own little ecosystem in the car."
"Are you sure it's not a wasp?"
"It's not a wasp. It's hovering."
"Wasps hover! You can't trust wasps."
"It's a hoverfly. So when's your flight?"
"Tuesday, but I'm off work on Monday too, so really I'm on holiday from now. So I'm going to email you the details of the hotel, because I'm not taking my phone -"
"What? You're not taking your phone?"
[My dad:] "What's wrong with her phone?"
[My mum:] "She just said she's not taking it."
[My dad:] "Why wouldn't she take her phone? That's bloody stupid."
[My mum:] "Your dad says that's bloody stupid."
"Yes, I heard that. I'm not taking it because I want to not be around phones and computers and email for a few days. It is not bloody stupid."
[My dad:] "You should always take your MOVE THAT HOVERFLY!"
[My dad again:] "You should always take your phone. They're so useful."

Yes, indeed.

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Riddle me this

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 5 August 2009 1 comments

So. Yesterday, I came back from work, found that my uncle had sent me a birthday card (belated - although, it's always belated - although, I can't ever remember when his is either, so never mind) with a crisp brand new £20 note inside. Ooh, I thought. That's handy, since my wallet contains:

- one £5 note in the note compartment
- one £5 note slumming it with the loose change
- a few more pounds in said loose change
- and various old train tickets, expired credit cards, stamps, etc.
- and it hasn't seen a crisp new note for quite a while.

So I put the £20 note in my jeans pocket - I am very, very sure that I put the £20 note in my jeans pocket - and went about my day.

This morning, heading to work from my boyfriend's flat, I realised halfway there that I'd left my wallet under his coffee table. (Actually nowhere near halfway there, but I am lazy and didn't want to turn back.) He still had some stuff to do at home, and I was meeting him for lunch later anyway, so I texted him to ask him to pick up the wallet, and carried on.

Usually this would be annoying, since it'd mean I had no money until lunchtime. But since I had a crisp brand new £20 in my pocket this morning, I stopped at a shop and bought a can of the world's best Fanta (Fruit Twist, since you ask) to get some change.

I know I reached into that pocket and brought out a £20 note. I know I handed it to the woman behind the counter, apologised for not having anything smaller, was told it wasn't a problem, and was given a lot of change. I remember this.

And yet, at lunch, when the bill arrived, I did not have change for a £20 note in my pocket. Nowhere near. How could I have lost a £5 note, a £10 note, and some loose change? Maybe I'd put it somewhere else? Weird. Anyway, I opened the wallet I'd just got back so I could at least put the two £5 notes that were in there towards the bill, and pulled out... a crisp, brand new, £20 note. And it was the same note. I swear. Okay, it's not like I'd marked it or anything, but... you don't get crisp brand new £20 notes round here very often, and certainly not turning up in wallets after you thought you'd already spent them in shops.

So, either:

1) I'd put the birthday £20 in my wallet after all, and forgotten about it. (Very likely.) By sheer coincidence, there was also a £20 note in the pocket of those jeans the one time I wrongly thought I'd put one there the day before. I somehow managed to lose all the change from that £20 along the way.

2) The note in my pocket was the birthday £20, and the note in my wallet had been there all along. And I lost all the change somehow.

3) Either my wallet or my jeans pocket has started generating £20 notes.

4) The birthday £20 my uncle sent is actually a magic note, which returns to its owner when spent.

5) There was never a £20 note in my pocket, but since I was so sure there was, I actually paid for a can of Fanta with an old train ticket, Jedi mind trick style.

However unlikely options 3, 4 and 5 might seem, I can assure you that the chance of me not noticing a £20 note in my wallet is even slimmer, so that rules out option 2. Which leaves only option 1. But, that also seems unlikely...

I'm surreptitiously watching my wallet from a distance now. Don't tell.

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What's wrong with pink

Posted by September Blue Monday, 3 August 2009 1 comments

a) Nothing.

b) Or at least there wouldn't be, if product manufacturers worldwide didn't feel the need to spraypaint 80% of everything targeted at women in it. Case in point, my new walking boots:


These were some of the least pink-focused ones available, too. I get the feeling they made it most of the way through the design process being grey, black and silver, until someone noticed. "Dear heavens, George! We can't market those to women - they might get halfway up a mountain and have a sudden crisis of gender identity! Quick, slap some pink trim on there and replace the shoelaces!"

Likewise, I have been wearing pink socks for most of today, because it is apparently impossible to buy a pack of five pairs of socks without pink featuring in there somewhere unless you're really, really trying. Which I'm usually not, because life is too short, but that doesn't mean little bit of me doesn't cringe deep inside every time I put them on.

Because it's not just a colour. It's coded as 'Girls like floaty things and princesses and diamonds and shopping!' just as much as green in supermarkets is coded as 'This is healthy, organic, and good for the planet!' or black in clothing is coded as 'Hello, I am Very, Very Serious'. If pink was just a colour, we would not have ended up with this, in which Memorex learned that women felt ignored by the tech industry, and countered that by producing... a handbag-shaped iPod dock. In pink. Which is really easy to use, because women 'don't have the time' to learn about technology.

See also: HP's laptop disguised as a handbag (which in their own words, 'coordinates perfectly with stunning Vivienne Tam pieces!'). See also Dell's attempt to market netbooks to women by explaining that you can use them to plan your diets and schedule your meditation sessions.

See also: the man who replied to me elsewhere on the Internet, when I described the new computer I was getting and said that while I was pretty tech-savvy and really into computers, I hadn't upgraded for a while and had never owned a laptop before. He helpfully suggested that the Macbook Pro I was thinking of was probably going to be way too expensive and far more computer than I needed, and recommended a netbook which was 'fine for word processing and email'. Because he had lots of women friends who liked it. And he'd heard it was the best 'chick computer' out there.

Okay, he didn't suggest I buy a pink one. All he did was work from the well-supported, long-established premise that because I was a woman, I'd need a special product that could cater for my techphobic womanly nature.

And I'm sure chick computers come in all colours under the sun.

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You know what you shouldn't do?

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 1 August 2009 0 comments

Three conferences in two weeks. For the sake of your sanity, your health, and your ability to sit through a Q&A session beginning with the words 'This is more of a comment than a question, really' without feeling a primal urge to throw a data projector at the speaker in question, just say no.

The conferences themselves were great. I've mostly recovered from my pre-emptive grumpiness before the first one ("Have a fun conference!" "Have a fun conference? Have a fun conference? You do know this conference involves getting up at 4am to fly there, right? On Ryanair?"), and the inevitable exhaustion was helped by having some time at home between conferences #1 and #2. Still, given that for most of my PhD conferences were my only real time off, it's a bit depressing to realise that drunken conference dances going on till 2am are no longer my favourite part of the conference. Going home and sleeping? That's my favourite part of the conference.

Some observations from along the way:

1) There are good conference badges and bad conference badges. Anything that hangs at breast-height with really tiny type is a bad conference badge. (I have heard some disagreement on this, but none of it from women, so whatever.) Clip-on badges are fine, except for when people attach them to their waistbands or to pockets of shirts worn under jackets, which they will. Safety pins are better.

2) A campus map is not a substitute for direction signs. Lots of direction signs. Seriously, just plaster the campus with arrows, everyone will thank you for it.

3) Macs will not bite you! Macs are fine! You do not need special advance warning if people are bringing Macs to your conference! I honestly do not get this, not when all people want is to plug their fairly standard computer into a fairly standard data projector. It's not quite 'Can I get this full-scale model of the Antikythera mechanism running on the campus network', is it?

4) Ryanair really is getting worse. I swear to God, if the plane got into trouble they would sell you parachutes.

5) Packing just about as much stuff as you can humanly carry, and then taking along a laptop as well, is the only deterrent I have ever found to spending three months' wages on the book stall.

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Handwriting blues

Posted by September Blue Friday, 31 July 2009 1 comments

Transcribing old documents is fun, so long as they're not too old. Take this, for example:


It looks a bit weird, but but once you account for the lower-case E being written a little oddly and the second letter in being a long s, it snaps into sense as the word 'escape'. (This is a 1715 letter written about the currently underway Jacobite rebellion, and the escaper in question got away from an army.)

There are other letters that don't quite look like we'd usually write them today. Take this word:


Right after the O at the beginning are two lower-case Cs, and again, that's a long S rather than a lower-case F.

Sometimes, you'll come across things you can read, but not make any sense out of, like this:


That looks like '7ber'. It is '7ber'. It makes more sense in context, at the top of a letter:

lond 7ber

'7ber' is 'September'.

There's other things around in the same period, too, and sometimes you find unfamiliar abbrevations, characters, and spellings, all jostling together:

of yt societie

The middle word is 'yt', an old abbreviation for 'that'; the last is 'society', spelt with a long S and an -ie ending.

Early 18th century writing is not something I'm familiar with. I have absolutely no training in paleography, the study of reading old handwriting (although I'm pretty sure that mentioning this to medievalists would just get me laughed at since this is practically modern, what's all the fuss about?). But I'm getting quite fond of it, because a) once you understand how the abbreviations work and how letters often get written, it's not that hard to understand, and b) my actual specialisation is in the nineteenth century. You want to see what nineteenth century handwriting looks like?


Hmm. Does that look any better in context?


I rest my case.

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Conference preparation

Posted by September Blue Monday, 13 July 2009 1 comments

1. Set alarm for stupid o'clock.
2. Wake up twenty minutes before taxi arrives, having carefully timed everything to waste not a moment's sleep.
3. Swear as taxi arrives 7 minutes early. Hurry, drop hairbrush, stub toe, swear again, belatedly apologise for being noisy, kiss boyfriend goodbye, race out for taxi.
4. Get to dark and dismal bus station to find bus already nearly full of inordinately cheerful people.
5. Bus leaves 15 minutes early. Ponder enthusiasm of everyone in the country at this goddamn time in the goddamn morning.
6. Get to airport. Go to get money out. Realise debit card is in jeans pocket, back at home. Try credit card instead. Realise credit card is also in jeans pocket. Oooh, this isn't good.
7. Phone bank, to be told that telephone banking is not open this early in the morning.
8. Google bank, to be told that all other enquiries except for 'I want to open an account and give you lots of money!' should be dealt with via telephone banking.
9. Count cash. Wonder if there's enough there to get a coffee now and to get train fare to destination after plane lands. Look up fare, discover coffee is 20p too expensive. Swear quietly to/at self.
10. Google various combinations of 'holy hell I am stranded without a debit card and with hardly any cash and I have to decide right now whether to get on a plane that will take me several hundred miles away, what do I have to do to convince the bank to give me money when I get there?' Answers unsatisfactory. Sigh.
11. Kiss iPhone anyway.
12. Decide upon plan A - get to destination, go to bank, possibly fake tears, produce passport AND staff card AND all other photographic ID on person, beg for money - and plans B-D, which are more complicated but at least bring the total of Possible Outcomes In Which I Am Not In Serious, Serious Trouble to 4.
13. Wistfully watch other people drinking coffee.
14. Get plane. Carpe diem, etc.
15. Land, scramble off plane in time to make it to train station just before train leaves, settle down in seat, wonder if coffee can be materialised through sheer force of will. (No.)
16. Phone bank. Explain situation. Am told that cash will be given at the discretion of the branch in question. Mentally count three branches within walking distance of destination, decide odds must be fairly good.
17. Get to first branch. Explain situation. Look pitiful. Receive cash.
18. Realise, once immediate money situation is solved, that feet have been rubbed to blisters by raggedy insoles and now I cannot walk one more step without yelping.
19. Get insoles. Limp to destination.

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Posted by September Blue Sunday, 5 July 2009 1 comments

My cousin added me as a friend on Facebook. This is a cousin that I think I've met once, when I was twelve and she was eight and we had a lengthy disagreement about what colour rosettes got first prize in horse shows (her: blue, me: red - a US/UK divide, it turns out, argued out in a small English town due entirely to our different choices in horse books). Anyway, nice to speak to her again, in the only conversation I've had with anyone from that side of the family since 1992.

Bit of background here: my mum's side of the family is scattered across the globe, and there are approximately eight thousand of them within first-cousin distance. Obviously, I don't know all of them very well, but I know who they are well enough to take a good guess at names at parties. (Helped, admittedly, by this being a huge Irish Catholic family in which everyone is either named Michael or Kathleen, or has a parent or child named Michael or Kathleen.)

My dad's side of the family mostly lives within a ten-mile radius of where I grew up, and I know none of them. My dad's mother lived a fifteen-minute drive away, and I met her once, at the age of seven, for half an hour. She always sent me huge amounts of toys for Christmas, all things like dolls and girly make-up sets and other things nobody who knew me would ever have bought, things lovingly wrapped in pink paper that might as well have been printed with 'I know nothing about this little girl, but damn it I am going to buy presents for my granddaughter!' I thought this was really sad, that she clearly thought a lot more about me than I ever had about her, until I was older and found out that my dad had left home at the age of five for pretty good reasons. After which I thought it was sad in a whole different way. But, I don't know; she was an unmarried teenager when my dad was born, which can't have been a great situation in a small English town in the fifties. She was a much less crap mother to my dad's much younger half-siblings.

Anyway, what I was going to say is that it's really nice to be in contact with my cousin. And to find out from her profile pictures that my hypothesis re: every relative within three degrees of separation from me having curly hair continues to be compelling.

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Posted by September Blue Saturday, 4 July 2009 2 comments

Behold what I did to my knee last weekend:


The answers to your questions:

1) Yes. Precisely as sore as it looks.
2) There was this hill, and the way down was a really steep path through some woods, all twisty and turny and full of tree-stumps and stones, and the ground was so dry and loose that it would just skid away under your feet, and if you stepped wrong you'd just go flying, see? And then just before that path, there was a big, grassy flat bit containing one (1) rock, rising up through the turf in some ancient geological grudge just in time to catch my knee on the way down. So that's where I fell over.
3) Well, obviously better shoes.
4) Because if I wore jeans I wouldn't be able to milk this for so much sympathy.
5) Yep, still sore.

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 3 July 2009 0 comments

Raaaaaaaain. Rain rain rain rain rain. And I am not at all complaining, because this comes at the end of a week where the air's been so close and muggy that outside feels like a washing machine after the cycle's just finished. Inside is better, not because of air conditioning - nowhere I work or live has air conditioning - but because I work in an old building with thick walls, and plenty of cool surfaces to drape yourself over when the weather gets too much. Which it does, even in here. So now it's pouring with rain, and that's fine.

This week has been busier than I'd like it; I'm currently The Person In Charge of our student workers. This is mostly not a problem, as they're great and can get on with things by themselves, but some of the software we use has picked this week to throw a grand-scale You're Not The Boss Of Me tantrum, and that we could have all done without. Also, this week has been less fun than it could have been, due to continued worrying over my brother and my dad and the recent revelation that my landlord is moving back to this country and probably wants her flat back. This will be thirteen moves for me in eleven years, including several unexpected and unwelcome events like this one, one set of landlords that were so divorced from reality and threatening with it that the police had to get involved, an assortment of neighbours ranging from the weird to the intolerable, and enough expense in moving and taking time off work to do it and getting movers and paying deposits and overlapping rent periods that I could probably afford a fair-sized payment on a house of my own by now if I hadn't had to pay it. I swear to God, whatever I did to a landlord in a past life must have been epic.

And with thick, humid weather on top of that, the kind you can't even breathe in - yes, I am very, very glad of today's thunderstorm.

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Posted by September Blue Saturday, 20 June 2009 1 comments

My dad and my brother might lose their jobs. They might not have jobs now, by this morning; my brother might have decided to jump overboard and swim for something more stable, my dad might have decided to walk out rather than fire a whole workforce and tell half of them to reapply for their own jobs. But they probably won't. It's only a little company that they work for, and my dad's been there for thirty years; even if they could afford to leave and not look back, there's more there than money.

But the company might not still exist in a couple of weeks, so all that might be irrelevant.

I've never felt further away from home than I do right now.

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Do you read like you used to?

Posted by September Blue Friday, 5 June 2009 3 comments

I ask because I don't.

Once, back when I was twelve or so, I built a little cave behind some cupboards and some junk in the spare room, lined it with some cushions and a motheaten quilt and hid away in there every afternoon after school, reading myself into oblivion for hours at a time. I went through books like air back then. I could read a whole book in one sitting, ignoring any kind of siblings-and-pets chaos that was erupting around me; my parents used to take me shopping, leave me in the library, and find me at the end of the day, usually carrying a pile of books I could just about see over the top of. I read a lot now, but nothing approaches the kind of total, overwhelming, put-that-book-down-and-look-at-the-scenery! immersion I could manage back then.

Other things haven't changed. I still read four or five books at once, and I still have a pathological aversion to stopping at the end of a chapter. Books I like get re-read over and over again (although not quite in the way I used to when I was younger - read the last page, turn straight back to the first page, and carry on without a break). It's not quite the same, though.

This is what I'm reading at the moment:

Ruth Brandon, Other People's Daughters. The lives of governesses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like Brandon's other books (at least, the ones I've read), it's very good and very detailed at the same time as letting you know exactly who she disapproves of.

Danny Wallace, Yes Man. It's very good. I've liked Danny Wallace since Are You Dave Gorman?. This one, though, I'm reading a couple of pages of before I'm going to sleep, sometimes, which is why I've been reading it since January and am only 2/3 of the way through.

Virginia Nicholson, Singled Out. The lives of single women after the First World War, and fascinating. I can't say enough good things about this book; in fact, I'm deliberately reading it more slowly now so that I don't have to finish it.

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. Lent by someone who thought I'd like it. I've only read the first two dozen pages or so, of about four hundred, but, yes, it seems good so far.

China Mieville, The Scar. I bought this in October and only started reading it this week, tsch. As with his Perdido Street Station, which is set in the same world, I'm very impressed at the same time as being vaguely annoyed by how the biology works - how is it a human with the head of an insect, or the body of a crayfish? How? I know, I know, it's fantasy, and he doesn't care about that sort of realism, but dammit, I care! Which is why I'm reading this one slowly, too.

Hmmm. Needs more short stories.

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Posted by September Blue 0 comments

Work remains good. But so busy. And yet, I go home before six every day, I sleep properly every night.

I've discovered that under normal circumstances, like when I'm not juggling four jobs and pulling thirteen-hour shifts, I don't sleep that much. Maybe six or seven hours a night, before I wake up, all refreshed and happy. Compared to the PhD years - staring blearily at the TV over my breakfast, watching Everybody Loves Raymond every morning for ten months before working out that there were two of the little blond kid - it's a new life.

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Possibly the weirdest family complaint ever

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 16 May 2009 1 comments

I wish my dad would stop posting photos of the landscape back home on Flickr. I am so homesick right now.

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 15 May 2009 0 comments

By about 2pm today, I'd decided that the afternoon would be better spent under my desk. (Thinking: it's quiet there, no-one can see me, and perhaps two inches of old, nondescript desk would give some protection from the meteor storm of trouble that hit my office today.) But the keyboard would not reach, and so the plan was sadly abandoned.

For a day in which very little got done, a lot seems to have happened, and most of it made me want to gnaw off my hand. I believe that the traditional metaphor for trying to organise large groups of academics is herding cats, but I'd like to contest this on the grounds that cats are smart, independent creatures who are easily capable of looking after themselves if the herding enterprise goes awry. Organising academics is not like herding cats. Organising academics is more like playing Lemmings. That, plus issues with scheduling student workers, plus working with some troublesome documents that by five o'clock I was close to convinced had achieved sentience just to plague me, plus an ongoing battle with my ex-ISP who refuse to accept we broke up, is all why I came home to an evening of pampering myself (viz. a blanket, a mug of coffee, a stack of good books and a Walking With Dinosaurs DVD).

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How is it Wednesday already?

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 15 April 2009 0 comments

1. We're going to London tomorrow to see this, which is both a cool-sounding film (by the man who made Helvetica) and features a panel discussion afterwards with Jonathan Ive. Jonathan Ive, people. I plan to smuggle in my ailing CRT iMac in the hopes that being in the same room as its father will restore it to health, and possibly a processor upgrade. The train tomorrow is at the kind of time which wouldn't really count as early if I'd managed to get any sleep at all last night, but alas, no, so I plan to spend the journey alternating between sleep and work. Because I'm that pathetic.

2. Well, busy, maybe. This morning was taken up with unexpected conference-organising related crises and a computer that wouldn't start up because of a problem with deciding my documents folder was actually the administrator's documents folder on the C drive and screwing up the path to that accordingly, meaning that the computer took nearly an hour to start up and then wouldn't explain what was wrong some stupid Windows thing, none of which had really featured in my Getting Stuff Done plans. Now I'm exhausted and still behind on all the multitude of things that should be done, and updating my blog while the computer takes a very... long... time to download a work-related program I wanted to spend some time messing around with when I'm not in the office. No, on second thoughts, this is pathetic.

3. I know, the template's all messed up. I'm working on it, in a sort of passive way.

4. Any suggestions for the story behind this? Because there must be one, and it must be good.


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Posted by September Blue Friday, 10 April 2009 0 comments

I cannot swim. Really, I cannot swim. I don't mean that I don't know how, which is an unfortunate but fixable situation; I mean that I do know how, and I've had lessons up to the point of jumping into the pool in your pyjamas to pick a brick up from the bottom of the deep end (a skill which I'm sure I'll need one day), and there is no longer any excuse for my inability to manage more than a handful of lengths in one session apart from being fundamentally, irrevocably, and possibly genetically bad at swimming.

My mum and my brothers are great swimmers. Me and my dad sink. We're both fine underwater, but lacking gills, this doesn't really help much.

It's good to have a swimming pool a short distance from my office again anyway, though I miss the huge, fancy swimming pool at my very-sports-conscious last university. Swimming is good exercise, I can take a short detour to the pool on my way home, etc etc etc. Still, I wish I could actually swim like an adult.

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yes, I know about the newt babies now too

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 7 April 2009 3 comments

Dinner the other night:

"You're my friend! How could you not tell me that Tom Paris once regressed into being a newt?"
"I'm sorry! I didn't realise! I thought you knew! ...Seriously, how did you not know that?"

Take away my geek cred now.

I'm not interested in changes quite that drastic in my own life, but doing a postdoc in a different field is making me wonder about how much my career path could - or should - diverge from the subject of my PhD. Obviously, I don't want to work on that particular specialised area forever, but my postdoc is several steps further removed than would typically be expected, to the point where people in my new department who've asked me what my background is have typically responded with "...Oh. So, how did you end up working on this?"

(That makes them sound mean, which is not right. They're not mean. They're just genuinely surprised - it really is quite a jump.)

This post doesn't last forever, and I'm keenly interested in getting some kind of scripted career trajectory together in which my PhD work and my postdoc work both play a part. There isn't a huge amount of overlap there. So, I could stick in the PhD field in spirit if not in office and use the postdoc work to vaguely back it up; I could jump ship to the postdoc field and brush off the PhD work; or I could carve out a niche for myself that includes both, at least to some degree.

The first option is the one I'm least interested in right now, because my postdoc isn't directly applicable to the sort of posts and funding I'd be applying for after it's over. And, plus, I really like this field, which makes option B seem a little brighter. Still, I don't think that even with a postdoc I have enough of a background to make a career in the new field, and trying to do so anyway would disregard the work I have done - a PhD, a pretty nifty publication, a lot of conference papers and contacts that I'm not inclined to cast off.

That leaves option C, heading in a direction which combines material from both of them. This is both possible, and appealing, in a way which is difficult to explain without getting too identifiable, but try it this way: my PhD was on, let's say, owl-spotting in the English countryside. My postdoc is in the field of putting radio collars on saltwater crocodiles in the Australian outback. And the people who've been dealing with saltwater crocodiles for a while have started to look into possible ideas they could borrow from other disciplines, like looking at how paleontologists are using a particular kind of modelling to track the maximu speed of an infurated Tyrannousaurus. Well, birds are descended from dinosaurs anyway, right? So could some of those ideas be applied to owl-spotting? Eh, possibly - and this is, without me even having to bullshit about it, legitimately A Growing Field.

It's kind of specific. But it's more about a methodology and a field of general interest than it is about a specific topic. And, well, I still know a lot about owls.

So that's something I'm thinking of, with a view to being employable in the future, hopefully - maybe - possibly - one day - in that all-hallowed Permanent Post. Partly because I want that kind of life and financial security; partly because I want my career to follow some kind of path I have some vague control over; and partly because I have moved thirteen times in the last eleven years and I have had it with moving house.

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Not At Home To Visitors

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 2 April 2009 3 comments

My flat isn't big, but it's long and narrow and spans two floors, and there's a front door into the hallway on both of them. A bit odd, this, as far as design goes. Maybe it's converted from two bedsits? I don't suppose I'll ever know, and all the information I have on Mysterious Upstairs Door is that it's listed on the inventory from my letting agents as an 'emergency door'.

It's right behind a tall bookcase, stacked as full of books as it was for the tenant before me. Using this as an exit would require a very specific emergency, I'm thinking. Maybe a really slow-rising flood.

But the other door does have a doorbell. And several times this week, that doorbell has rung. Twice, today. Twice in the last half hour. Both times I ignored it, on the grounds that the time it would take me to go down the stairs, out of my actual front door, through the hall, up another set of communal stairs, and then back over to the Mysterious Upstairs Door, is longer than it would take for the person doing the ringing to decide I wasn't in and leave. (And anyway, maybe it was Jehovah's Witnesses.) But then it rung again - and then someone knocked on the door ten minutes after that, fairly hard, which unless the JWs have got a little more determined since the last time I spoke to some, is generally not the way they go about things.

And yet! I still haven't gone out to see who it is, because each time, surely they'll have gone away by the time I get there, right? I'm sure they can hear my TV. Probably they think I'm ignoring them. And this is true, I am ignoring them, but I wonder if they have any idea that I'm ignoring them because I'm trapped by a logistical problem, that I'm wondering what they think of me, and that I'm spending far more thought on trying to work out what's behind their determination to speak to me than I ever would be if I'd really answered the door.

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 27 March 2009 0 comments

I managed to last until half-past one before getting bored and doing some research. Although 'research' in this case involves watching flash demos of other people's software, so it's not exactly taxing on my cold-addled brain.

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Off work with an unpleasant cold, and counting down the hours until I get bored enough to start reading work-related papers anyway. That's what you get for spending a weekend in the bracing sea air, you see? Ill.

My parents have been on holiday here, or at least not too far away from here, for the past week or so. Their hyperactive collie puppy is five months old now. She loved the empty beach, the fact that she could dig big holes in the empty beach, and most especially the fact that she could sometimes find dead hares this way, which is absolutely the best thing a puppy could ever find, and how cruel were we for not letting her keep any of them?

She's not too keen on water that got deeper than she was expecting, though:



The puppy is absolutely their favourite child at the moment. (Second is my boyfriend for fixing their DVD player. Joint third, me and my brothers, who have indeed lost all patience for fixing technological things without a litany of 'DAD, stop MESSING with this! What did you DO?' a long long time ago, but have never to my knowledge dug up a dead hare from a beach and then rolled in it.) Previous dogs have not been allowed on the settee; this dog is not only allowed to sleep there whenever she wishes, but actually has cushions rearranged under her head to keep her comfortable and make sure she doesn't fall off.

Anyway, now I'm home and ill, and catching up on all the unread blog posts that have been stacking up in my reader for the past couple of months, which was what I wanted to talk about in the first place. Most especially, this latest from Rate Your Students about how humanities PhDs should just stop complaining so much, are you people in this for the money or something? I have about five thousand things to say about this insidious annoyance, but for the sake of brevity will cut them down a little.

The argument goes like this:
1. Academic jobs should only go to people who are both very clever and very devoted to their subject.
2. People who are very clever would already know that the academic job market in the humanities is bad.
3. People who are devoted to their subject would enjoy the work in and of itself without needing a payoff in the form of financial security or a guaranteed academic job.
4. Therefore, people who complain about the trials of PhD and post-PhD life as if a) the job market came as a surprise to them and b) 'the hours [they] spend discussing ideas with [their] students, peers, and mentors' weren't rewarding enough to make the whole thing worthwhile shouldn't even be here in the first place.

Okay. No.

1. Academic jobs 'should' go to the people who can do the job. While being relatively bright and interested in the work you're doing are obviously going to be a bit part of that, 'I love my subject!' is never going to outweigh, say, publications on the job market. ("So you've never taught any classes at all?" "No, but I really love talking about literature to everyone else in my office!" Yeah, good luck with that.) Loving your subject - really, truly loving your subject - only seems to be the most important thing in the discussion when the discussion is about telling new academics to just put up with whatever it is they're complaining about. Funny, that.

2. People don't know the job market is this bad. Partly because it's not obvious unless you're looking: senior professors don't know the job market is this bad, for crying out loud. (Before I got the job I'm doing now, I had more than one very smart, very well-established scholar tell me that yes, it was a real shame about the job market, and maybe I should try applying for 1-year posts, as if when I said 'There are no jobs' I didn't actually mean 'There are no jobs.') PhD students? The same PhD students whose only job advice from the people who should know - the academics who are convincing them to stay on for PhDs in the first place - has been 'It's difficult, but if you really love your subject it's worth doing anyway, and the only people complaining are the ones who shouldn't be here in the first place'? Oh, come on. When they find out, it'll be by accident.

3. Hell, yes! Who needs food when you can read Derrida? You philistine mercenaries, with all this talk about 'job security' and 'I can't pay my rent' and 'something is seriously wrong when I'm working 80-hour weeks for below minimum wage and being told that objecting to another pay cut makes me ungrateful'. Tsch. You're in this for love, not money!

4. Therefore, shut up.

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Two things non-conducive to getting work done:

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 19 March 2009 2 comments

1. Google Street View UK going up.
2. Sunshine.

We managed to stay indoors and in front of computers for most of the day - unlike most of the undergraduates in the university, who from half-past eleven were sprawled out on every square foot of grass the campus and surrounding areas had to offer, soaking up sunshine like there wouldn't be any more until August. Which there probably won't, so good for them. And given that half of our morning was spent inching our way around the city as it appears on Street View, there will be no preaching about the virtues of work here. (Best Street View sighting of the day: the arm of our Masters student, playing Guitar Hero in his new flat.)

Some amount of work did get done, most of it involving dealing with the hundred headaches of a badly-OCRed 18th-century religious text. On the one hand, a painfully slow and fiddly proofreading process and transcription, taking hours per document. On the other hand, 'Christ has power to execute the lame.'

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This is depressing

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 17 March 2009 0 comments

Today, me and my office-mate became The People Who Send The Masters Student To Do The Dishes.

He was bored! He doesn't mind! He offered! (Yes, I'm a little disappointed in me as well.)

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You betrayed me, Ikea!

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 15 March 2009 1 comments

Ikea sells stuff which is reasonably cheap when you buy one of it. Not so much when you get a carful. Especially since you have to walk through the whole shop before getting to the checkout (well, you don't have to, but: it's Ikea! it's funky minimalist laminate chic! You have to), so you go in for pillowcases and a draining rack and come out with five hundred plastic things called Skorkopp, which is not so cheap at all.

Still. It's Ikea. It's worth it.

I've also helped to cut down a tree today, to a given value of 'helped' (carrying a saw and then leaning on a dead branch). This took about a minute and a half, to what I'm hoping is the pleased surprise of my boyfriend's grandpa, who gave us a pretty dubious look when we were heading to the tree with the saw. My boyfriend's grandpa - 97, with strong opinions on brandy in coffee and the superiority of the Muppets over this Wallace-and-Gromit nonsense - is brilliant, and not least because he does a fantastic line in well-timed theatrical eye-rolling, something which fortunately appears to be genetic judging by my boyfriend's baby photos. It's kind of wonderful to see a smirk-and-perfectly-raised-eyebrow combination perfected as early as 18 months.

Also, it's strange how simultaneously fascinating and weird it is to see photos of people you love from before you knew them. I've seen old film of my boyfriend as a toddler, trying to drive a bus, which was sweet until the toddler I didn't know looked at me with the same half-sheepish, half-amused expression that I know belongs to someone I've only ever known as an adult. Carol Ann Duffy said it best, to an old photograph of her mother as a teenager; these are other people, almost, not quite.

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 13 March 2009 2 comments

When you first get contact lenses, everyone is very keen to reassure you that you can't actually lose them in the back of your eye.

This is true. But it turns out that you can certainly misplace them for a little while.

Ick. And ouch. And ick.

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Posted by September Blue Thursday, 12 March 2009 1 comments

All right! I should update this more often. And in honour of that, here's a several-years-belated introduction.

I'm 28. I have a PhD in Victorian literature, earned through blood, sweat, toil, tears, and a conveyor belt of first-year essays to mark. There's a conversation happening across a few academic blogs at the moment regarding the number of people who get the PhD in a fairly pleasant environment with nothing to concentrate on but their own research and the occasional class to teach, and that wasn't my experience, by a long way. There was one year I had four jobs plus the PhD, and I earned £10500 and gave the university £3000 of it for tuition... we're not going to dwell on that, but it's fair to say those weren't the absolute best days of my life in many ways, although they were great in others.

At the moment, I'm a postdoc in a field which both is and isn't within shouting distance of my own. I love my job, my new department, the fact that for the first time in five years I can get all the sleep I need (which turns out to be about six hours when I'm not working the job-juggling schedule from the jaws of hell), and to a growing extent, the city I've moved to, which is huge and confusing and seems to be lacking in hills and woods and wildlife but has some things going for it all the same. And I am determined to learn to love this place.

I live in a little flat with a spiral staircase in an old Victorian school; my bedroom was once the headmaster's office. My much-loved tropical fish live with me, and I am not at all joking when I say that the best way I've ever found to motivate myself to get research done in the past is by thinking of the big reef aquarium I'm going to get when I can afford it. My boyfriend is a scientist, although disappointingly this seems to be all done on computers these days with nary a lab-coat nor a test tube to be seen.

For the first time in four years, I'm not teaching. I can't decide whether I miss it or not.

In non-academic parts of my life, which I am hoping will get a bit more headspace now, I like cameras and horses and sci-fi and far-away places and the idea that the thylacine isn't extinct after all. (I do not like long walks on the beach, because it is hot and there is sand.) And music, and fossils, and Macs. My work schedule for the past few years killed off all my hobbies; I'm hoping to fix that in the future.

Also, my blood group is O+. I find this rather disappointing.

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So! How was your Saturday night?

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 1 March 2009 2 comments

Mine started off with macaroni cheese and ended up with my small, shivering hands clinging to iron railings outside a hotel in the rain, while my boyfriend and my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend steadied my arms on either side so that I could hop away from the wailing siren of a fire alarm.

Macaroni cheese, people: just say no.

No, to tell the truth, the story behind that isn't anywhere near as interesting as it should be. I did have to sit down with my foot up for an hour watching other people dance (not right, this), but I was allowed to be the only Arts person at a tableful of scientists with only a couple of jokes about loud alarms going 'AWOOGA!', and the ankle managed to lay off most of the stabbingly stabbing pain until the end of the evening, which was a long, slow walk to a taxi rank in the style of Touching the Void.

Anyway! Work. In a segue that I'm sure would be a lot neater if I took a moment to do this properly, the lengthy agonising hobble to get to a taxi queue where there were fifty people and no goddamn taxis reminded me of the whole advising-students-(not-)to-do-PhDs-in-Arts-subjects thing. I was speaking to an MA student at work the other day who can't wait to start his PhD, can't wait to be called doctor, and really really can't wait to be a lecturer, especially because his girlfriend's doing a PhD too and they've already started looking at which universities they could work in to be close together without having to work 'anywhere crap'. Now, he's very smart and the job market in his field is slightly less awful than in mine, but... it's a PhD in the Arts. You'd think somebody would have said something.

I stayed guardedly positive while sharing a few things about the job market that he probably needed to know, so I feel like I've sort of done my duty by being the first person to say that things are really not great. But, honestly? I've heard a lot of people recommend that the advice to such students should be to tell them absolutely not to go into academia unless they're really, really, absolutely dedicated to the point of not even being able to imagine ever being happy doing anything else with their lives, and... I'm fairly sure that bright, keen students like this one wouldn't be at all put off. This student had already been told that, in fact, and was even more determined to be tough enough anyway, and this is because it's effectively useless advice, given to bright twenty-one-year-olds who are already in love with academia. 'Don't do this unless you're prepared to be the best of the best of the best!' 'Don't do this unless you love academia more than all the other students you know!' Come on. How do you think they're going to respond to that?

Forgive me for my pessimism, here, but I don't think that students who believe that they only deserve to be in academia if they're prepared to jump right into it regardless of what horror stories they hear about the job market are going to make the best-thought-out decisions.

These students don't need to be told to prove they're worthy. They need to be given the facts about the job market, preferably in terms of numbers - numbers of candidates, of jobs, of number of applications typically made before one works out, of months/years they can expect to spend doing casual hours of part-time teaching to keep some kind of department affiliation in the meantime, of average monthly income they can expect to have during that time - and then left to make their own mind up based on that. It's just a job! We're not training them to be Jedi, for Christ's sake.

And with that said, me and my ankle are going to watch TV.

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Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 25 February 2009 1 comments

This nine-to-five thing is still weird.

Anyway, things have been busy. I had lunch today with my boss and our head of department and a few people from another department, to talk about a big research project some of them want to put together. I'm guessing the reason I was there is that there might be a part for me in this, rather than because they needed some photocopying doing, which, you laugh, but I've heard that story, and while the meeting itself was very informal and chatty, it turns out it's quite tricky to eat a burger in such a way that implies I'm a great research assistant and they should keep me on. But... I was there, which has to be a good sign, and it's a project in which I'm guessing they'd need an RA or two, which is an added good sign, and it's going to include a lot of the stuff I'm doing right now, which sounds good too. Yes? Maybe? Yes?

Also, I've arranged two courses to teach on this autumn, talked about my existing research, planned a conference panel and tried to work out a contract for one of our student workers. All of which is my excuse for why I'm sitting on the sofa updating my blog and watching Scrubs rather than unpacking any of the boxes that lurk downstairs.

Incidentally! Why isn't there a version of Scrubs for postdocs? (Unless it's because we get to home at half-past five to watch TV. And possibly because it's difficult to make enthralling TV out of grant applications.)

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Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 24 February 2009 4 comments

Well, the good thing about this morning's meeting is that there was only one point at which my boss threw down all the papers he was holding and slammed his head repeatedly into his outstretched hands.

Oh, and one of the PhD students brought chocolate biscuits!

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Posted by September Blue Saturday, 21 February 2009 2 comments

I'm on a train. It's packed. I'm balancing on my one square foot of floor space in the bit between the doors, along with eight other people and one pissed-off baby in a pushchair. Meanwhile, all my earthly belongings have already made it to the new flat in the movers' very spacious lorry. I am reconsidering my decision not to pack myself into a box and get carried on board when they weren't looking.

Ha, the baby is staring thoughtfully at a watch it's wearing while tapping the watch-face with one finger. How very dignified.

My rucksack is really getting rather heavy now. I'd swap it for the bag at my feet (which holds three house-plants and a desk lamp - nothing like moving house to bring back those undergraduate days!) but there is no room to manouevre at all.

Ten more minutes... (and then a short walk, and then ten more minutes on another train, and then another short walk, and then I have to unpack, and then tomorrow I'm going back to the old place to clean it to Give-Me-My-Deposit-Back standards, and then on Monday morning I have to meet the letting agents there so they can inspect it, but then I'm DONE.)

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 13 February 2009 0 comments

One of the people who works upstairs from me came into my office today to let us both know that there was a Strange Smell on the staircase, and that Estates & Buildings were on it. "It might be another dead cat," she said. "We've had that happen before, and there used to be a lot of stray cats that came into the crawlspace here to have kittens, for years and years - I suppose they just always had..."

Dead cat or no dead cat, I'm loving the idea of working in a building that eighteen generations of stray cats have come to think of as the Mothership. And that's not even counting the cool Being John Malkovich door that lets you crawl through to the department next door.

I like this place!

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Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 10 February 2009 2 comments

You know what's most difficult to get used to about the new job? I get evenings and weekends off. I get to go home when there's still hours left in the day. It sounds like paradise (seriously!), but it's surprisingly hard to adjust to all the same, especially when things are busy (as things inevitably are); I'm used to working twice the hours for a third of the pay, and I've been doing that for so long that this feels somehow skewed.

But I'm not complaining. Oh, hell no.

Anyway, more later, to a vague approximation of 'later'. I'm off out for dinner to celebrate the good fortunes of my brave little finally-fought-its-way-to-publication article.

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Arts postdoc with a new job, a new city, and a lot of very old books.

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