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Posts about bunnies (old posts, page 22)

Back to normal life

The massive flurry of curriculum development has died down. The course is running better now -- I still wouldn't say "smoothly", but certainly "better than before". It's time to move on.

I'm gathering an large list of items to fix in the course for next year. Some of them were predictable (I mean, I should have predicted them, and consider their unfixed states to be personal failures), but most are just conclusions from observing the exercise-experiments. Any new set of exercises are going to have weak points; finding a problem in new material isn't a failure. The only failure would be in not learning from it and not fixing it for next time.

Last weekend, I turned my attention back to my research. After a day of figuring out where I was (I was in the middle of various projects, but dropped everything in my race to fix the programming course), I got back to work. A few days later, I happened to check one of the conference websites while my computer was compiling stuff, and discovered that the deadline was less than a month away. I thought I had an extra month or two. Oops.

I think it's a good thing, though. Close deadlines have a wonderful effect of concentrating one's mind. I'm hopeful that I can send two papers. I can definitely do one of them, and I'm confident that it'll be accepted. The conference is in the Netherlands, which is quite close to Glasgow. I'd really like to go to that one.

I'm also starting to think about mundane issues: what acommodation I might have for next year, my summer plans, etc. Still nothing definite, but I'm gathering information.

Finally, I had the oddest urge a few days ago. My room was getting quite dry, so I tried putting a jar of water near the radiator (a cheap attempt at a humidifier). It occurred to me that my room would look a lot better if I had some flowers or a plant in that jar.

Plants? Flowers?!?! Is this what going old does to you?! I didn't think I'd be going senile quite yet... maybe this is a UK thing? Gardening seems to be bigger here than in North America, so maybe I'm subconsciously picking up the culture...? Whatever the reason, this was definitely an odd urge.

Bach, Knitting, and Thinking

Some people say that knitting helps them think: keeping the hands busy leaves the mind free to wander. I've been doing the same thing -- but by playing Bach's second partita on the violin. I know that some classical musicians are wincing at the notion, but blasting through the piece without care has really helped me!

When I began [STRIKEOUT:practicing] playing violin regularly last Dec, I made a conscious decision not to be picky. In the past, my violin playing kind-of trailed away after a week or two. This time, I wanted to keep on playing for months. And more than anything else, I wanted to feel natural playing the violin.

I think I've reached that stage. I can play the first four movements of the partita completely on automatic pilot (with the exception of remembering whether I"ve played a section once or twice... I don't think I've been repeating things the right number of times). By "automatic pilot", I don't just mean "memorized" (that's a trivial task) -- I mean "my conscious thoughts are entirely devoted to planning programming exercises for my course, planning research activies, or thinking about pretty girls". Some part of my brain controls my fingers and arms, another part knows how the music is supposed to go; the two combine and do their task with the same amount of conscious thought that I apply to walking.

"Unthinkingly" playing music is nothing new for me; I did it quite often on the cello when I was a kid. I don't think I started to break myself of the habit until my early 20s. I can't remember ever doing it on the viola. Oh, my mind definitely wandered from time to time, but I never romped through half a Bach unaccompanie sonata without noticing that I'd finished a movement and started the next one.

If it sounds like I'm bragging... well, yes and no. I mean, yes, it's an impressive feat of memory and mind activity. It indicates a high level of familiarity and comfort with the instrument. It means that I can concentrate on lots of other people's activities in ensembles -- I'm very good at playing in amateur chamber music groups, since I can track everybody's parts and pinpoint where problems occur. In orchestras, I make a game out of this activity: can I recognize a problem before the conductor does (or at least, before they say anything)? If I know the conductor, can I predict what they're about to say? (for two conductors, my prediction accuracy was over 50%)

But there is a downside. Not thinking about the sound you're producing means that you won't be producing the best possible sound. Now, in the context of an amateur orchestra, that's not a terrible thing. But in the context of serious music-making (especially in a small ensemble or solo), this is a terrible thing. If you want to take music seriously, and if you want to be taken as a serious musician, then playing on automatic pilot is one of the worst possible things you can do.

However, I'm not a serious violinist. I know that I could improve much faster if I carefully analyzed myself as I played. After years of "breaking the habit", I'd never play cello without such self-analysis. And I always stress the benefits of self-analysis when teaching music.

I've decided, after careful thought and self-analysis, that the best thing for me is to play violin unthinkingly. Because playing unthinkingly is still better than not playing at all.

Besides, playing on automatic pilot gives me great thinking time. It keeps the hands busy while leaving the mind free to wander. As a highly self-critical teacher and researcher, a wandering mind is the most important thing in my life. If my hobby can support my research, they both win!

Another amazing journey

Returning from Worcester was another amazing journey, although "amazing" in a slightly different way. My friend couldn't make it from Oxfordshire; he lives in the country and was completely snowed in. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because there were some travel "issues".

On the 6th (my non-traveling day), there was a trivial amount of snow[1] and massive panic. Schools closed, trains cancelled, at least one airport closed entirely (?!?), etc. It was about 8cm in Worcester, which everybody was saying was the most in fifteen or twenty years. Other places got as much as 25cm.

As a Canadian, I was torn. On one hand, I was very smug about my snow-superiority. On the other hand, being from Vancouver, I know that even a light dusting of snow can be fatal for unprepared drivers, and England seems even less prepared for snow than an average Vancouverite. And I know that although I'd have no problem with this amount of snow in my mother's car, that car was specially bought to handle snow... and in any case, the problem is never the snow itself; the problem is the other drivers in the snow. On a third hand, I was extremely smug about my power over the weather (just before going to Singapore, Vancouver had the most snow in 10 or 15 years -- clearly the weather gives me what I pine for!). On the fourth hand, I am a Canadian, so I'm compelled to apologize for causing a disturbance. Regardless of whether or not it's actually my fault.


I should be going to the university soon, so I'll do points for the rest.

  • Still disruptions today (Jan 7), despite having no new snow. Travel restrictions on tickets (i.e. advance tickets must be for specific trains) lifted, so I can start my journey home earlier.
  • Left worcester 13:23.
  • Arrived birmingham 14:09 -- yes, it's a slow train.
  • Got a sandwich and "2 for 2" deal on 500ml diet coke, drank it all. I expected to save one for the train later on, but nope, I finished off 1 litre of coke in ten minutes. I guess I was really thirsty.
  • Scheduled 15:20 glasgow was cancelled. :(
  • No waiting rooms, no heating. Pay toilets for 30 pence, went 3 times because of the litre of drink. Also, they had a radiator in there.
  • Found a new terry pratchett book in the bookstore! Unfortunately, it's not a discworld book. I was getting bored of my laptop (it's also not comfortable for 3 hours of sitting on an almost-freezing stone floor).
  • Could have gotten 16:20 edingburough and changed at preston, but that train was 20 minutes late anyway, so I didn't hop on.
  • Got on the 17:20 Glasgow train. Still in good spirits; it's an adventure.
  • Train fairly full for 15 minutes until Wolverhampton, then was 20% full. Power, space, good voyage.
  • After Carlisle, 10% full. I guess I can't blame them for cancelling the earlier train.
  • Stopped a few times (not at stations) due to signalling problems.
  • Curled up, put my jacket over me, and dozed. I figure that if my cat could sleep somewhere all sprawled out, it should be big enough for me to sleep curled up. Yes, I managed to find a sleeping position on the two seats on a Virgin rail train.
  • 40 minutes late arriving at Glasgow.
  • Nice jog/walk home. Air was crisp, but after jogging for a while and getting the blood flowing, it wasn't cold. One part of the Clyde even had ice over it, although it didn't look thick enough to walk ok. A few hundred meters later, it wasn't frozen at all.
  • Got home at about 20:30, after a 30-minute jog/walk. It was awkward jogging with my thick jacket, backpack, shoulder bag, and I was really thirsty, so I didn't push myself.

Final touch: I cut myself on my chair. No, that's not a typo. I had my shoes and socks off, and yanked the chair towards me (turning as I did, to sit down), and one of the legs (it's a roller chair) hit my right ankle. And apparently the construction of the chair left some sharp edges in the plastic; it took two minutes for the bleeding to stop. After that, I tried to keep it elevated, but the back of your ankle is an awkward thing to have elevated... if it was on a toe, that'd be trivial, but I had to bend my leg around and stick it on my bed. Oh well.

I'm sure that a normal British person would be complaining about that train journey, but I honestly don't mind. Trains are a novelty, it was an adventure... in some ways, I was even hoping for a trip with delays and cancellations. I mean, that's part of the British rail experience, right? I'd have felt ripped off if my journey home had been as smooth as the journey down there.

Oh, and for the final final note: Glasgow definitely feels like my home now. I had the same feeling about Victoria... it became my home when I returned from being away.