Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Public Service Announcement Regarding the Flu

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This is not about swine flu, this is about The Flu, all strains.

If you have a fever, swollen glands, or other very obvious signs that you are unwell:

Do not come to work because "it's boring at home" or "everyone is just being paranoid". Do not come to work.

Do not spread it around.

You are not limited to the following two options:
1. Freak out, believe media sensationalism.
2. Ignore illness and spread it liberally.

There is a happy middle ground between paranoia and wantonly germing up your workplace. Just because you stay home and choose not to spread your illness, it does not mean you've bought in to media-induced paranoia.

Swine flu or not, the flu is always particularly dangerous for certain people. Everyone you work with seems healthy, right? It's okay for them to get the flu. Everyone is just paranoid.

Actually, there can be some health concerns your coworkers have that are not obvious to you that put them at higher risk for flu complications. Do you want to put them in danger just to show off how not paranoid you are? Just to keep from being bored at home? How about their relatives? Might your coworkers have children? Elderly relatives that live with them or that they see often? Might they have pregnant wives or friends? If you pass the flu to your coworker, you could be endangering these people in their lives, particulary if you happen to catch a strain for which it hasn't yet been possible to vaccinate everyone at high risk.

You don't have to prove that you're not giving into sensationalism and you're so cool and non-paranoid, and you don't have to give in to sensationalism either. This should be your approach every year: if you get the flu or obvious signs of illness such as fever or swollen glands, please do your coworkers and the at-risk people in their lives a favor and stop the spread. Your workplace can go on without you while you get better.
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hallstatt, Austria (and the way there)

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We left Ljubljana for Hallstatt at mid-morning, stopping at McDonald's on the way out for breakfast food, which they turned out not to have. Filet-o-fish for breakfast, oh yeah! We'd read that Lake Bled, not far from the road back to Austria, was really pretty, so we made a quick stop there on our way out. I really mean quick - maybe 10 minutes max!

Lake Bled + Road to Austria Okt 09

It was long enough to appreciate the view and get totally messed up on the little tiny roads. It looks like a lot of tourism comes through the area. It's worth at least a quick stop just to see the lake!

Not far north, we passed back into Austria, paying all the exorbitant tunnel tolls all over again. As we ascended into the mountains, it went back and forth between rain and snow. A friend had warned me to take my boots and I didn't. I really should listen to her more often.

Just when we could barely stand another little twisty road, we arrived in Hallstatt. The town clings to the side of a mountain right on a huge lake. The road there comes in via a tunnel under the mountain - you suddenly pop out right in town! If you take the train to Hallstatt, you actually arrive across the lake from town and have to take a ferry the rest of the way. There is no train station in Hallstatt!

Hallstatt is a mining town - salt mining! On the mountain is the oldest known salt mine in the world, where salt has been mined since prehistoric times. They still mine salt there and will continue to mine it for at least another one hundred years or so. But, the town's main income source now is tourism. Almost everyone living there runs a Ferienwohnung; we stayed in Ferienwohnung Kerschbaumer and I can heartily recommend it. We got a whole floor of the house complete with a huge kitchen and bedrooms with views over the lake. The town is, sort of like Heidelberg, particularly jam-packed with Asian tourists - it must be especially emphasized in guide books there! (When Damon mentioned in his lab that we were going to Hallstatt, none of the people there had heard of it except the Taiwanese guy!) It, along with the rest of the area known as the Salzkammergut, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The weather was absolutely unpleasant, but wow. The setting is really beautiful, and probably would be in any weather. So, we wandered out anyway, with lots of stops at restaurants and cafes to warm up! Check out the pictures to see everything - I tried to put in a fair bit of explanation there too.

Hallstatt Okt 09

Didn't expect skulls? ;) Hallstatt definitely has some interesting quirks.

Halfway up the mountain, you can visit the salt mine for a hefty entry fee of 20 EUR per person. We really hemmed and hawed over whether to do it, but finally decided to go - first, because the mines are the reason the area has UNESCO status, and second, we had heard salt mines were worth visiting.

I'm not sure it is worth 20 EUR. I guess it really depends on how you see everything there, and what you're expecting. The first step is putting on protective clothing over your regular clothes. Everyone gets to look super-dumpy but feel they are doing something special. Then, into the mines. First, the whole thing was rather rushed. Our guide clearly hated her job, and explained almost nothing. (The tour was in both English and German.) Really, the whole thing would not have needed to actually take place in the mine, because we mostly just went from one display to the next that could have been set up anywhere, we had 3 seconds to look at them, and then we were hurried along. The highlights:

* An underwater lake. I don't think she said much about why it was there but it looked neat for the 2 seconds we saw it.
* A laser show which is in some ways worth the money just for the laughs. On the wall of the mine, accompanied only by music, they just showed pictures reminiscent of cave art, with a big chunk of salt (represented by a bunch of cubes) appearing again and again much like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a riot.
* Slides - they have two long slides that you take from one level down to the next. On the second, longer slide they actually use a speed radar and everyone can see how fast they went down. (Lighter = faster - my short mother-in-law blew us away, and my tall husband was super-slow.) But again, it's like an amusement park, not something you really visit a UNESCO site for. So, while that was fun, it wasn't what I was really looking for.

The sun didn't come out until the last day of our stay, right before we left for our next destination. We managed to get a photo or two where it was shining, and the clouds were gone long enough to show all the frosty pine trees up on the mountains. Awesome.
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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

English at Work

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The language of science in the west is English. (I specify west because there are more Chinese-language journals in the world than English-language journals.) About 95% of the articles published in my department are written in English. The proportion of English-language conference presentations given by my colleagues is probably the same. They can go to conferences in Japan, in France, in Finland....they are in English, English, and English. You can't go into science anymore and expect a certain level of success without knowledge of English. I didn't make it this way, it just is this way. I'm not being an arrogant native English speaker. I am only describing the state of things as they are. It just happens to be lucky for me that the language of science is my native language. Imagine what would happen to scientific progress if it were carried out only in the languages of the home countries, no communication between countries, no international collaboration.

As a result, science departments and labs all across Europe, usually filled with scientists from countries on every continent, conduct their seminars in English. The works are written in English, presented at conferences in English, the scientists in the departments and labs have mixed levels of knowledge of the local languages, and it's good practice to talk about the topics in the same language in which they are written and internationally presented. There are several terms in epidemiology for which many German epidemiologists barely know the German equivalent - the English is used.

My department is an exception. We have students from all over the world - MANY from China, and also representation from other Asian and African countries, not to mention me, so we are like other science labs and departments in that regard. But we also have a strong team of documentalists who aid in research and in many cases do not need to know much English. They all know quite a lot of it, but don't need it. So when it came to vote one day before I joined the department - should our department seminars be conducted in English only like so many other places are doing? - this didn't pass my department. Seminars are conducted in either English or German, the preference of the speaker - as long as slides are in English. They let it slip if they're not.

Imagine you got here from China a week ago. You have to work really hard to bone up on your English to write those 7 articles you'll have to get out over the next two years so you can get a job after your PhD. You took a quick German class in your minuscule bit of spare time before you arrived. Now you're in a warm, crowded room with the lights dimmed listening to your department seminar - you're supposed to be grasping this stuff - and it's all in German. Yeah, you're getting sleepy.

Many students from countries where English is not the native language already have to spend inordinate amounts of time on their English to survive in science and I think we ought to cut them some slack if their German is not up to snuff. If my English was sketchy and I moved to Germany to complete a PhD in two years, you can bet I'm not going to have a lot of free time to become some kind of German expert, when I know that English can get me by long enough to get my degree.

So I just wanted to say I think people are being dicks when they make unqualified comments like "When you are in country X you have to speak X-ese." Yeah. Next time you take vacation in Slovenia, hope you've spent years getting fluent in Slovene. If you visit the Faroe Islands, hope you boned up on months and months of Faroese. If you go to a conference in Japan, hope you know Japanese.

Cut people some fucking slack.

And I think the seminars should be in English. The documentalists never have to present anyway. They are the ones who make this "you should speak German in Germany" type of comment and they are the ones who send out department-wide emails in German only and write at the end "it would be nice if someone would translate this for the non-German speakers" (yeah, it would be nice, thanks for looking into that before sending it off to some poor Hungarian who just got here a month ago and doesn't even know the word for 'fire' yet) and they are the ones who make Betriebsausflug (work field trip) plans with the intention to exclude non-German speakers from some of the activities. Get with the times - at least a third of your department is now made up of foreigners who, for at least the duration of their training, have to focus on their English to survive, and that number is increasing quickly year by year. Excluding them just means Germany pays the money to help educate them (depending on their funding source, yes) and then they feel pushed away and don't stick around.
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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Adriatic Day Trip from Ljubljana!

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We got a slow start from Ljubljana, heading out for the coast to arrive there in time for lunch. The GPS couldn't really help us since it didn't include Slovenia, but there were lots of road signs for towns we knew were on the coast, plus I'd printed out some maps from Google. We'd done a tiny bit of research and thought it would be cool to start with a coastal town in Croatia called Poreč, and then move on if it didn't suit us.

About halfway there, as we drove through hills and past cute villages, Damon's mom realized she had forgotten her passport. Croatia isn't in the EU yet, so there is a border check at the Slovenian-Croatian border - a passport is definitely necessary. Not wanting to return to Ljubljana or squash our dreams of exciting border crossings, Damon's parents offered to visit a town on the Slovenian coast, Koper (because it was on signs and Damon remembered it being on the coast), and let us take the car further on to Croatia.

We dropped them off in Koper, Slovenia, which is on the very northern tip of Istria, a peninsula on the Adriatic Sea which sits mostly in Croatia. Then we headed south to Poreč. As we went south the landscape started to look different - dark red dirt, vineyards, skinny evergreens planted around like in Italy, and little gray towns with steeples sitting on hilltops. NICE!!! The border crossing was easy and friendly.

I didn't read up too much on Poreč so there would be some surprises, but I was a little nervous. Sometimes coastal towns can be touristy in an ugly, modern way. I think Poreč might have been like that around the periphery, where huge, hideous resorts could be seen lining the coast. The center, however, on a little peninsula jutting straight out to sea, was beautiful!

Poreč was to us what every tourist seems to be looking for. It was beautiful, small, and there weren't many other tourists there (out of season I guess). Cheaper than Slovenia - we took out 50 EUR (the equivalent thereof, anyway - Croatia has its own currency) and had most of it left over after lunch, a cafe stop, admission to a bell tower, and a couple of little souvenirs. People were friendly. It was just empty! We climbed a tower that used to be part of a town wall, visited a basilica with 6th-century mosaics and climbed its tower, sat in a cafe on the seaside, and had calamari for lunch - and she prepared a sauce for them from scratch right in front of us. There were souvenir shops, but overall there really wasn't the feel of a place overrun with tourism and looking to get your cash at every turn. We actually felt kind of bad - it was so nice, and the place where we'd dropped off Damon's parents hadn't looked as good from what we saw.

Poreč Okt 09

Koper Okt 09

In late afternoon we returned to Koper to pick up Damon's parents, thinking we needed a couple of weeks to come back to properly explore Istria and maybe some further points south on the Croatian coast. We thought we'd take them to a nicer town on the Slovenian coast (a look at our book while we had some time that afternoon made Piran sound nice) for dinner, but when we arrived in Koper they'd decided they wanted to return to Ljubljana for dinner. I guess their experience wasn't quite as nice as ours - Koper's prices were like Ljubljana's so they didn't get the nice break we did. I thought going back to Ljubljana for dinner was a mistake, though. Again, we had trouble finding a restaurant within the limited guidelines I explained in my last post. We ended up at some overpriced Italian joint on the river. No one was there, because all the restaurants (within the guidelines) were empty. Then, his dad was craving a crepe. We looked all over the center for a crepe and finally found a place that had them on a menu. It only had outdoor seating but we decided to deal to finally get that crepe. It turned out they were out of crepes. Argh!! Ljubljana: not fun for eating. A pretty town though, and it was nice in the center with some live music going on and all the buildings and bridges pleasantly lit. We didn't stay out too late - we had a lot of driving in store for the next day - off to Austria!
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