Getting settled (September 12, 2005)

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Our apartment

In real estate, as they say, location is everything.  From our doorstep, it is five minutes or less on foot to:
    City Park
    The local Buddhist meditation center
    Our doctor
    Our dentist
    Two hospitals with emergency rooms
    A substantial department store
    The main post office
    The central branch of the public library (just one block away)
    Sleepless Goat cafe (the wireless Internet does work most of the time, by the way)
    A 24-hour convenience store
    The customs office
    Several yoga studios
    An independent bookstore, Novel Idea, and a couple of used book stores
    Tara Natural Foods
    The farmer's market, held four times a week
    A sport and bicycle shop
    Numerous restaurants
    Staples office supply
    2 drugstores
    Lake Ontario

The longest distance we need to travel on a regular basis is about a mile, to Chaya's daycare.  The university is pretty much on the way, about the midpoint, so that is also reasonably convenient (though perhaps it will be somewhat less so when it snows).  At the same time, we manage to be just outside the zone of heavy downtown traffic.  Our current apartment is about double the size of our old apartment in Berkeley, for about 1/3 more money, and that doesn't include the huge basement, which is all ours, and the price comparison doesn't include heat and utilities, which are all included, and which can be substantial in this climate.  

The house is quite attractive, though a bit run down.  It is a brick Victorian with very large front windows and takes in quite a bit of light from three sides.  It is a bit newer than some of the neighboring buildings, being in this year precisely 100 years old, and thus has the distinction of being one of the very few buildngs within the city limits where the great Sir John A. MacDonald never lived, worked, played cribbage, visited his ailing maiden aunt, or sat nearby contemplating the constitutional framework of this wondrous land.  Or, if he did, the plaque is missing.

Applying for grants

Here are two stories about applying for grants in the USA and Canada:

USA: A researcher at Berkeley was applying for a research grant from the NSF (National Science Foundation), together with two colleagues.  Because of her unusual status at the university, she needed to be approved for "exceptional PI (Principal Investigator) status by the university.  By the university's old policy, this status merely needed to be approved before any funds could be disbursed under the grant.  By the new policy, exceptional PI status needs to be granted before the grant application may even be submitted.  They found out about the rule change shortly before the application was due to be submitted electronically.  The solution was to make a different member of the project the principal investigator. Unfortunately, once this simple change had been made on the computer system, she was locked out, and could no longer actually click to complete the submission.  The new PI couldn't get to a computer before time ran out, so the team inquired at NSF, whether this circumstances would justify a tiny extension on the deadline.  The response was, more or less, if a nuclear attack paralyzed the entire west coast, we might extend the deadline until the first EM pulse had subsided...

Canada: One of the first tasks I had after I arrived in Kingston was to complete my "form 180", intent to apply for a "Discovery Grant", for NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council), by the August 2 deadline.  Last week I attended an information meeting for people applying for NSERC grants.  One of the first things we were advised was to get the form 180 in, if we hadn't done so already.  Our proposals could still go ahead without it, but it would be delayed, and we would not get the advantage of suggesting reviewers.

More generally, the Canadian approach is more egalitarian, as one might expect.  Whereas NSF only approves five to ten percent of grant proposals, and even the bloated National Institutes of Health approve only about 25 percent, NSERC approves 70 to 80 percent, and even the tragically underfunded humanities council SSHRC approves around 40 percent. The individual grants in Canada are drastically smaller, on the other hand, which is fine for theoretical types like myself, but probably a nuisance (or worse) for the experimentalists.

Rewarding miscreants

Last September, students fanned out into neighborhoods surrounding the campus after an evening "homecoming" concert, committing random drunken mayhem. The city council might have responded with a demand that the city crack down on students and their fellow travellers.  They might have demanded that the university accept liability for damage caused by future homecoming events, and post a bond to be permitted to host another concert.  Instead, with little opposition, they approved a variance to the noise bylaw, to allow the concert to continue until 2 am.  The reasoning was that the students would be ready to go to bed by the time the central party broke up.  It might work, might not -- the councillors themselves described this as an experiment -- but they were willing to try and engineer a solution, rather than confronting evil head-on.

It's positively un-American!  Rewarding evildoers is about the only thing Americans hate more than "punishing the victim". This decision (which, as all have recognized, is a leap in the dark) reflects a spirit that I have found refreshingly common in Germany as well, recognizing human motivations as complex, and that rewards and punishments play only a moderate role in determining people's behavior.  Most things go wrong because people are just too lazy or indifferent to do them right.  As much as it may feel wrong to respond to misbehavior by giving the delinquents what they want, it may give you better results than trying to battle human nature on every front.  Stimulus-response thinking -- if you reward a certain behavior, you get more of it -- is very popular in the US, but it is bad psychology, and makes bad public policy.  Set up the urban environment so that it is as easy to do the right thing as the wrong, and most people will comply.  Conveniently located trash bins are more effective than laws against littering.  As the Tao Te Ching teaches, "When the true sage leads, the people do not know they are being led...  They say, 'We did it all ourselves.'"

(Update: This commendable effort at gentler policing ended in a riot.  Oops!)


One of our hopes was that we would be coming to a place where people were not so stressed all the time as they are in Berkeley.  It is hard to give a general appraisal of Kingston, or of Canada, in this regard, but it is notable that we have already been invited to people's house in six weeks here more often than we were in six years in Berkeley.  And at gatherings at people's homes people are not always in a rush to get home.  We both found it somewhat peculiar in Berkeley that dinner invitations frequently come not just with an appointed arrival time, but with a departure time as well.  In Germany, as in New England of my memory, it is of course assumed that guests will eventually return home, but it would be considered rude, as well as undesirable, to emphasize the fact.  And, of course, it is true that people must work the next day, but they can enjoy expansive conversation without persistently mentioning that fact.  At one Thursday evening dinner a carpenter (there were two carpenters, one married to a scientist, the other to a writer, a degree of class mixing that I rarely encountered in the US) remarked that he had just come back on Monday from two weeks vacation, and had already decided, because the weather was so delightful, that he would take Friday off as well.

Second burglary

Not literally a burglary, since our house was not entered,  but someone stole a child trailer that was locked up behind our house.  Unlike our bicycles, which we lock up with u-locks and heavy shackles, this was locked with simple 1/4" cable. Still, it is astonishing to think that someone would bother to come out with bolt cutters to steal a simple trailer.  As with his predecessor, this thief managed to steal something with almost zero resale value.  In addition to various defects from years of hard use, this trailer is missing the seat for a child to sit in, which we removed during our moving-out and moving-in, to better use the trailer for transporting boxes and furniture.  So the fellow has pinched himself a child trailer that can't be used for transporting a child without a significant amount of reconstruction and expensive parts, and which is only of middling utility for transporting objects.

Speaking of stealing that which enriches him not, but leaves us poor indeed, we recently discovered one more object that the first burglar stole: a hard disk that we had used to store about 10 hours of digital home video.  The originals are still on tape in someone's garage, so they're probably not gone for good, but it is quite a nuisance.  And of course, it is unpleasant to think of such personal images falling into a criminal's hands.  Almost certainly it will just be erased and sold -- it is hard to imagine a hard-working pornographer having no better source of material than to troll through ten hours of random home video for something titillating -- but still, it makes me a little queasy.  And the resale value?  Not zero -- this is probably the most valuable item stolen, but it is hardly the most modern device.



    This has worked out very nicely.  Chaya seems to be quite happy at the Corner Clubhouse, and it's hard to get her to leave in the afternoon, when she's the last one there, which is a positive sign.

    Family doctor

        We got one, but, as I mentioned in a previous note, it takes a strong dose of Vitamin B, in East German parlance.  ("B" for "Beziehungen", "Connections".)  In this case, a woman we rented a room from in our first weeks here recommended us to her family doctor, who then took us on as patients.  I'm glad it worked out (at least, it did if the doctor is good), but this does not seem like an equitable way to run a health-care system.  Another doctor was willing to take on faculty members from Queen's, but his practice was a bit far away, and he had a website which seemed a wee bit weird.  And when I called a dentist, whose name had been on a list of those accepting new patients, and asked if he were taking new patients, the receptionist temporized.  "Where did you get his name?"  When I said I was from Queen's, the answer was yes.  It's like you need the secret knock.  They only want certain patients, and someone needs to vouch for you.  But which patients do they want?  Presumably those who aren't likely to be sick, and take up scarce resources.  On the other hand, if you never get sick, they don't get any money from you.

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