Morning, but not by Grieg

Posted 21 May 2009 By claire

There once was a girl named Claire.Β 

Claire lived in a charming house with her love and three cats. The house was surrounded by grass and trees and all sorts of green growing things.Β 

In the mornings, she could hear the birds singing and the squirrels chattering overhead, much to the pleasure of the felines.

One Thursday morning, she smiled, thinking it would be a good day. Not too hot, a few clouds, and the possibility of blessed moisture. And yet, such peace and tranquility were not to be.

For after her morning ablutions were over, she had a nasty surprise waiting….

For in her towel, which was now wrapped around her, she discovered an intruder.Β 

Yes, readers, an intruder.

Of the eight-legged, black sort.

She made this unpleasant discovery as she was drying herself when her hand brushed against something cold and distinctly un-towel-like.

And she said ACK!

And she said EEK!

And she said ICK!

And she said EEK! again, just for good measure

And she shuddered mightily.

Her cats, being of a curious nature, came to investigate. But it was only the smallest that was brave enough to find out what was upsetting their human so.

Syra inspired Copernicus with her courage, and between the two, they fought with the intruder. It took cunning – claws, paws, and teeth – but finally they prevailed. The black arachnid was vanquished!

And oh, was Claire happy! She praised and petted and commended the cats for their valor in battle. What wonderful cats she has!

The moral of the story is: if, like Claire, you dislike daring towel-intruders or shameless shower-intruders, it is better to have a curious cat than a playful dog.Β 

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Fixin' it up!

Posted 19 May 2009 By Shane

Lest you think that this is solely Claire’s blog, I am taking this opportunity to announce… well, not much really. πŸ™‚

We are beginning to investigate options for some home improvement projects, since we’re in need of some new siding and roofing. I’m not quite sure how that’ll turn out yet, but I’m going to try to be much better about recording these improvements than all the work we did before we first moved in.

So, we have the “House” section of this page. I’m hoping to be able record some before-during-after pictures, etc.

We’re also investigating solar panels (both photovoltaic and hot water) and I’ve found it to be highly confusing up to this point, so I’ll try to include any information, etc that I manage to acquire during the process.

I think that’s everything. Just stay tuned, there might be interesting things here soon. πŸ™‚

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TED talk

Posted 4 May 2009 By claire

Karen Armstrong TED talk

I should have posted this long ago, since much of my current career-path aspirations have been influenced by Armstrong’s writings.

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Opera, opera, and more opera!

Posted 3 May 2009 By claire

The Metropolitan Opera (NYC) has been making some wonderful use of technology in the past couple of years. They started releasing HD broadcasts of certain productions, broadcasting them to movie theaters all over the country. The tickets are about double the normal cost of movie tickets, but it’s well worth the price. Not only do you get to see the show, but there are interviews and back-stage tours during intermission or before the opera starts. I’ve gone to see a couple of them and really enjoyed it.

Back a few months, I had an email from the Met announcing the start of being able to subscribe to their player online. I didn’t do anything about it at the time and more or less forgot about it. Until this weekend. Friday morning I had an email advertising a free weekend to watch or listen to any production they have available online. (They require you to register with them, but no credit card or anything) Since I was home on Friday, I started watching opera. When Shane came home he asked if I’d be watching opera all weekend. I laughed and said that even I don’t have that kind of endurance when it comes to opera. Well…maybe that wasn’t quite true πŸ™‚ It’s lucky timing – I’m done with everything for the semester and summer classes don’t start for another week. For anyone interested in reading my thoughts on the operas I’ve watched, keep reading. I know opera isn’t everyone’s thing, but this is a pretty amazing thing that the Met is doing. I wonder if other opera houses in the country are going to follow suit at some point… The one nice thing about either seeing the shows in the movie theater or even online is that you can see clearly what’s going on on-stage (unlike if you can’t afford orchestra tickets so you’re stuck in the nosebleeds squinting at the tiny dots) and the subtitles are right there on screen. I remember reading an interview with the Met director when he initiated all of this and he said he hoped it would bring in a broader audience that might not otherwise go to the Met. Now that it’s been a couple of years, I wonder how that’s going? Has it been successful?

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Restructure of higher education

Posted 30 April 2009 By claire

A friend emailed me an op-ed by Marc C. Taylor about the current state of graduate education in the U.S. I don’t have the original citation, so bear with the long quotations.

Overall, I agree with a lot of what he has to say. His perspective is that there are more graduate student than there are jobs in the nation’s universities. I don’t know that for certain, but it’s believable. As the economy worsens, faculty positions are being eliminated down to the bare bones. It’s ironic I’m talking about this today; I had my last class today with a professor who was forced to find a job elsewhere because the current university couldn’t afford to maintain an adjunct. If current faculty are being laid off and having trouble finding new ones, it is logical to assume that graduating Ph.D.s are going to have an even harder time.

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

I think this was my favorite part of the article. This is one of the major issues I had in my doctoral studies. In order to find a unique dissertation topic, it would have to be something so narrow that I’m not sure there’d be enough to get a “standard” length dissertation out of it. I know I’m verbose, but I still couldn’t imagine writing 500 pages worth of insightful on one chant (or something). My biggest frustration with academia is the inherent impracticality of the path, unless you’re in the bio/chem/physics research field. Even areas such as political science, sociology, and anthropology which could be of enormous help in the current world (as I believe Taylor notes in his article) if the academic community wasn’t so buried under their own innanity. Universities used to be amazing centers of learning and advancement; to some degree they still are, but the academic community as a whole needs to dig it’s head out of the sand.

About halfway through his article, though, I think Taylor goes off the deep end. He opines that academia needs to be regulated and restructured in the same way as Wall Street and Detroit. That’s not as out there as his “plan” for how to achieve this restructure. I know it’s a long quote, but I can’t do justice to some of his ideas:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

I can definitely get behind this change. My recent experiences trying to find a program that would allow me to combine non-fiction writing, journalism, gender/women’s studies, and religious studies for an end-goal of a career outside of academia has been impossible. The program where I am currently taking courses allows a maximum of 9 credits to be transferred in from other institutions or departments within the same university. For me, this means that I can apply a total of three courses outside of Religious Studies to a Master’s degree. Any further courses are for my own edification. As far as I can find, there are no design-your-own master’s programs. The way the academic system works currently, a design-your-own program might be harder to prove “legitimate.” Then again, there are so many MBAs running around out there, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Oh, you have your MBA? gee, good for you. As my father always said, that and ten cents will get you a cup of coffee. Although with inflation, you’ll need two dollars and the MBA to get Starbuck’s cheapest drink.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

This is where he starts to go off the deep end for me. “What was your major in college?” “Oh, I majored in Water.”Β  Right…. I also love how he effectively removes the humanities and arts from the conversation, except for language. In his model, where do music, graphic and visual art, dance, and theater fit in? Are all musicians, artists, dancers, and actors supposed to go to highly specialized instutions, such as conservatories? One of my strengths as a graduate student was having a liberal arts background, even though I wanted to make a career in music. A music school would have prepared me to be a performer, maybe a teacher, but nothing more. That’s the highly specialized sort of career and degree that Taylor is ranting against earlier in the article. He also leaves history out of the conversation, without which we are only doomed to repeat our failures, as someone famous once said.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

On the surface, I agree with this. However, there is no substitute for working with a professor face to face, otherwise known as human interaction. The last thing we need to do is de-personalize society even more.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce β€œtheses” in alternative formats.

I object to his characterization of dissertations as “more footnotes than text.” Shane has recently been telling me about on-demand printing, which would be one solution to the problem Taylor sees. The student has the dissertation “published” just not printed, but print copies can be generated as necessary. That satisfies the scholarly requirement while easing a financial burden. An eBook is another solution. While on the one hand I agree that there are plenty of alternatives to “traditional papers” I also don’t think the concept of theses or dissertations should be tossed out entirely. Perhaps the purpose of a dissertation should be different, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. His “solution” to have Web sites and video games is terrifying to me.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

This point in particular made me wonder where he’s getting his information. In what field are “most” graduate students not going to find work? Is he talking specifically about the current economy? I don’t think the current economy is a good basis for restructuring the graduate educational model, it must wait until the economy has regained some of it’s strength. When no one is getting a job, it’s pretty safe to make a claim like that. I feel as if Taylor is fear mongering here… I also despise how he doesn’t give specifics – “exposure to new approaches” doesn’t tell me anything. It also makes me think he doesn’t really have any clue how to go about doing what he’s proposing, just some amorphous “better” way.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

This point is the most frightening to me. I’ve watched professors go through the tenure process; it makes them a nervous wreck (at best) for a year, takes their attention away from their students and classes, and is a political game. If you’re going to abolish the tenure system, then get rid of it, but not have some kind of quasi-tenure that makes intelligent, well-educated people go through the tenure-granting nonsense 7-10 times over the course of their career. He does have a point – some professors do become complacent, but there are many who do their best work once they are settled in to a job. This needs way more thought than the little Taylor has to offer here.

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Posted 7 April 2009 By claire

I subscribe to an online discussion group for the local library and someone posted a list from the BBC of the Top 100 Books and The Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels” List and “Reader’s Choice”.

In the comments from the discussion group, it’s amusing how many people said that most of the books they’ve read in the BBC list were for school, either high school or college. It made me think that at least the educational system is partially working πŸ™‚

I’m reasonably well read, but on the first list I’ve only read 25 and a half (I’m part way through “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett) and several people commented that having children’s books and contemporary books like Harry Potter really help boost the number. On the second list (100 best novels) I only had 7; 7 out of 100 is pretty bad! The final list, “Reader’s Choice” is a bit better – 16 out of 100.

I think reading for school has really set me back πŸ˜‰

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Travelogue, Day 5

Posted 2 April 2009 By claire

Travelogue Day 5 (Thursday 2 April)

I think I should spend a bit more time talking about the class at Harvard. I just re-read what I wrote yesterday and I don’t really feel that I need to change anything substantial, perhaps just flesh out some of my opinions.
First, about the class itself: It is a class that is being co-taught by two professors; one professor specializes in a specific area of Religious Studies, the other in American Women’s Studies. The discussion yesterday was centered around two readings by different Egyptian Islamic women, about Egyptian Islamic women. The subject of the class was interesting and I fully intend to find and read both of these sources at some point, because it’s a topic I don’t know much about. My comment about not needing to have read the materials wasn’t intended as a criticism of the materials themselves; rather, I felt that in order to follow the discussion, reading the specific chapters wasn’t necessary, I could follow the discussion pretty well. This is both good and bad. Good because it means that the points were being clearly explained and well articuluated and any points of confusion were being cleared up. It’s bad because I expect a discussion in a graduate level class to go deeper into the material, discuss fine points of the writer’s arguments, etc. and that wasn’t happening in this class. There are two possible reasons: first, critical reading isn’t the purpose of the class (which raises another whole set of problems for me) or second, the readings weren’t conducive to a deep discussion. One of the sources is fiction by an author who attempted to stay anonymous throughout her professional life, the other source was by a woman who had a very visible, public career. I left the class wondering what the reason was for these particular source readings to be chosen. This wasn’t a literature class and yet there wasn’t much discussion of the religious culture either. (It was there, someone asked a question about the broader religious context, but it wasn’t the focus of the discussion, which is part of what struck me as so odd.) The student who kindly spoke to me during the break in the middle of the class sort of danced around saying that this class wasn’t entirely typical of HDS courses and that it wasn’t her favorite course. So in an effort to be fair, it’s possible that other courses have the critical thinking and depth of discussion that I would like to see and experience. However, the lack of community among the students wouldn’t change – all of the students struck my as hyper-competitive and generally disinterested in speaking with each other. I have fortunately had the opposite experience in my graduate classes; even in musicology where I often felt as if I was on a completely different wavelength than the other students, there was a natural feeling to the discussions – students responded to one another’s points and to comments made by the professor, in a dialogue format. I couldn’t be happy in such a stifling environment. Intellectually, I’m sure I could keep up (which is something I wasn’t sure of prior to my visit), but I don’t think I would be happy or “flourish” as a scholar/intellectual/writer in the overall environment. You may wonder, dear reader, why I am spending so much time explicating my dislike. Two reasons: first, I want to make it clear that I have thought this out and I’m not dismissing HDS out of hand. Second, when it comes time to start putting application packets together, I want to have my reasons clearly stated so I don’t have to try and remember three or six months down the road why I don’t want to apply.
About the area (and I promise to be more brief): it’s a city. I expected a medium or large-ish college town feel rather than feeling as if I was in a slightly nicer part of Boston. I am not a city person and there were people, cars, and more people EVERYWHERE. I can’t imagine living there or trying to get any work done.
Thankfully, I woke up this morning feeling much better. We had a late breakfast with my friend J. at a local coffee shop (I had a very yummy blueberry muffin) then it was off to Vermont. When we were planning this trip, I hadn’t expected to be doing much (or any) of the driving. Through a quirk of fate, Shane was unable to be listed on the rental agreement as a driver, which means that technically I’m the only one who is supposed to drive the car. I wasn’t thrilled about driving to and from Cambridge yesterday and I did much more than my usual amount of cursing of other drivers along the way. The weather was lovely today – the sun came out and the temperature hovered around 60 for the afternoon – so it was a great day to drive. I never expected to be content driving for 3.5 hours, but it went pretty quickly. Except for some aches in my leg and back, it was a pleasant drive. The highways we took were relatively devoid of traffic and frequently had beautiful vistas to drink in. I commented to Shane that if the scenery had been even half as interesting going from NJ to CO, I wouldn’t have been so bored with that trip. We arrived in Vermont with a couple of hours of daylight to spare, thankfully, since the B&B where we’re staying would be quite challenging to find at night. The area is gorgeous – rolling hills, lots of trees and rivers, quaint New England feeling. We agreed that the roads must be nightmare-ish in the depths of winter and that a 4WD vehicle is a must. The B&B at which we are staying is a ways up a dirt road; ordinarily, no problem for a smallish sedan. This is mud season. For anyone like myself who has never driven on a mud road uphill, let me tell you it’s worse than driving on ice. I was slipping and sliding all over the darn road, with my wheel pointed left and the car going right. Just as I thought I was getting the hang of how to go uphill on mud, a turkey (yes, I actually mean a bird, not a silly human) chose to leisurely cross the road. His friend decided it was a good idea, so crossed the road. Not wanting to be left behind, a third one flap-walked its way across also. The first one made me swear, as I didn’t want to lose the momentum I’d gained. By the time the third one appeared and crossed, I was laughing too hard to care if I lost momentum. Of all the possible animals that could have crossed a road in front of my car, I did not expect turkeys. The B&B itself is absolutely lovely, our room has an amazing view of the surrounding area and mountains in the distance and it promises to be a very comfortable stay.
Tomorrow, we are off to talk to an admissions person at Goddard College and from there we drive down to CT. Yay, more driving. The weather isn’t supposed to be quite as nice, but I’m still enjoying the rain. As long as it waits to start raining until we’re off the mud road, that is.
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Travelogue, Days 3 & 4

Posted 1 April 2009 By claire

Is it cheating to write about two days at once? The events really don’t amount to two separate days, so maybe not.

Tuesday 31 March and Wednesday 1 April

On Tuesday, we spent some wonderful time with a friend I hadn’t seen for years. Finding her house was a frustrating, typically New England experience (from what I’m told). Her house was in rather bad shape the last time I saw it, not long after it was purchased. However, the amount of work and love they’ve poured into it in the past couple of years is humbling. I (slightly) envy the wonderfully bright colors they’ve been able to use on their walls, but it works with the character of the house.

Sadly, I was starting to fill very ill partway through our visit with her; lunch was delicious at a place called Fishbones, but afterwards I was entirely lacking in energy to do anything other than drive back to our lodgings and find a place to collapse. At some point I heard my mother’s voice in my head talking about something that use to afflict my father periodically – “exhaustion syndrome.” Not really a medical term, of course, just the way my mother chose to describe the feverish, chills, and extreme tired-ness that my dad exhibited at these times. I guess travelling is a bit more tiring than I thought… So, I slept for a couple of hours (Shane tells me I was snoring, so I must have been sound asleep) and upon waking, felt much better. A good night’s sleep last night helped as well, but I’m still on the verge of needing to sleep for large blocks of time in the middle of the day if I’m not careful.

Today turned out to be quite an experience. First was the adventure of driving from where we’re staying down to Cambridge. An hour and a quarter later we made it to the campus – and this wasn’t even at commuter hour! After a few wrong turns and treks down very narrow sidestreets, we arrived in the vicinity of Harvard Divinity School (cue trumpet and drum fanfare). After venturing into one building and being directed elsewhere, I came to the admissions office. Amazingly, they had no record that I was supposed to visit this week. I can’t blame it entirely on them – I could have called them to confirm before we left last week – but I did have written confirmation from someone in the admissions office and I filled out their online information form. However, since the ultimate goal of today’s visit was to attend a class and not listen to someone in admissions babble at me about how wonderful and impressive Harvard (cue trumpet and drum fanfare) really is, I was content with them not knowing I was going to be there. Off I went to the class, prepared to be awed and inspired by the high level of education I was about to witness. (I’m only being about 2% sarcastic..)

The class I attended was on the subject of gender, religion and politics – heady stuff, right up my alley. Part way through the class, I found my mind wandering. I sternly called it back to pay attention and then I realized why it was wandering in the first place – – boredom, plain and simple. The class was “discussing” two contrasting readings and from the classes I’ve taken, both in musicology and religious studies, there is always a fair amount of critical reading and thinking that was just lacking from this class. When I mentioned this to Shane, he asked if it would have helped if I’d done the readings, and I laughed and said that it wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t that I was bored because I didn’t understand the discussion; I was bored because they weren’t saying anything overly interesting. To make a long story short-ish, I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the level of discussion and by the amazingly pedogogical skills of the professors. I was, in fact, underwhelmed. Several of the classes I’ve been in at CU have had a higher level of critical thinking and frankly, better led classes. Also, one hears amazing things about grad students forming a community – not here. They weren’t particularly interested in engaging in discussions with the other students in the room during class, and only one student condescended to speak to me during the break.

Contrary to what Shane says, I can’t imagine living in Cambridge. It’s a city, not a suburb, and I can’t picture myself ever living in such a noisy, crowded place.

Maybe more to say about Harvard tomorrow after I’ve slept on it, which is where I’m heading now!

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Just Like Home

Posted 1 April 2009 By Shane

So, I’ve been wandering around Cambridge, MA while Claire attends a class at Harvard…Β  it’s a pretty cute area and, as long as you can walk to what you need, is probably a decent little neighborhood. Driving was a challenge, but it’s a pretty walkable area, which isn’t all that surprising…Β  it’s right next to a college, after all.

More surprising, I think, was the presence of a very Boulder-esque restaurant called Boloco…Β  It’s a burrito joint with some decidedly non-mexican options. πŸ™‚Β  I had a Bangkok burrito with chicken, and a berry blitz smoothie. It was quite good.

None of that really makes it Boulder-esque, though…Β  what’s most reminiscent of the Boulder area is that there isn’t a trash bin. Theres a bin for recycling, and a bin for compost. That’s it. No trash. I’m actually a little surprised I haven’t seen the same set up in Boulder, cuz it certainly seems like the Boulder thing to do. πŸ™‚

Just thought I’d share before I head off to wander some more.

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Posted 31 March 2009 By Shane

As you can undoubtably tell from Claire’s posts…Β  we’re on vacation. Or, I guess, I’m on vacation while I accompany her on her jaunt through the northeast. πŸ™‚

I don’t really have any expectations for our time here, although I am looking forward to seeing the area where I grew up for the first time in about 10 years. And, even better, I get to show Claire. On the other hand, the last time I saw the town there were many things that shouldn’t have been there (like a Dunkin’ Donuts in a two hundred year old building), I’m a little curious to see what has become of the very quiet house, on the very quiet street, in the very quiet town in which I grew up. πŸ™‚

But, we won’t be there for a few days…Β  in the meantime, I’m enjoying getting a much sleep as I want (although I’ve been rather restless the last couple nights for no reason in particular), and having no obligations to fulfill. πŸ™‚

My phone/e-leash won’t stop chiming, but it’s always stuff that I can safely ignore, which is a welcome relief.

Ironically, at my former job, because I had more responsibility I wasn’t ever able to release work quite as much, even though the environment was much less demanding. At my current job, the environment is more demanding, but I’m able to just be away from work while on vacation. It’s really quite nice.

Beyond that, I just finished the first novel I’ve managed to read in quite a long time. It’s good to remind myself what I’ve given up to follow the news a bit more closely, and attempt to maintain a mildly insightful blog.

So yeah, vacation is good. You all should take one. It’s worth it. πŸ™‚

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