Visa news (good news!)

I don’t know how I got the idea that I couldn’t leave the UK and return during the last six months of my student visa, but the student visa advice counselor at the university’s Student Support and Well-Being Centre has just disabused me of that notion. She said the US works that way (so that may be where I got the idea) but in the UK it’s generally three months and for citizens of “low-risk” countries (including the US) it’s generally not a problem. So I am no longer worried that I may not be able to travel to Europe or the US between mid-July and when I get a work visa sorted.


Officially retired from CSC

About three weeks ago I made a decision and took action on something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years: I decided to leave CSC and start drawing my pension. I worked there full-time from 1977 to 2005 and part-time from 2009 until now (with VERY little work since I’ve been in the UK, as I was on the government side and those projects all require you to be physically in the US while working on them). I met and worked with Antonio there (that’s my late husband, for those who met me less than 14 years ago today) as well as many other wonderful people, some of whom are still friends. I learned a lot and gained an incredible amount of invaluable experience, and CSC management was incredibly supportive when Antonio and then my mother needed me to help care for them in their last months. CSC was not my first job, but it might as well have been — I grew up there, professionally — so this feels like closing a major door. (If I had waited until I was 65 I could have worked for them again, but since I’m doing this before age 65 I won’t be able to work for them again, ever.) But since I’m Doing What Needs to Be Done to stay and work in UK/Europe after this academic adventure of mine, I shouldn’t need the US-based work. So today was my last day as a CSC employee. It feels like ending a relationship; and in a way it is exactly that. So I am feeling both up and down about this. But I tell myself that it’s time.

Senior bus pass!

Travel Pass photoThis week I received my “Concessionary Travel Pass“, the pass that allows older people to use local buses free after 9:30am and on weekends. Each country in the UK has its own pass, and since I live in England mine is good for any local bus service in England. (This includes the London buses!) The pass is free to anyone who has resided in the UK for at least six months — easy for me to show, because my UK driving licence, one year old, has my address on it — but you have to give them a passport-style photo, and that costs £5 in a photo booth. (You’re not supposed to smile, but I think it’s just that you’re not supposed to show your teeth, and I’m happy that I managed to get a faint smile into mine.) After my pass arrived, I took it in and paid £12 to have one year’s travel on the Tyne and Wear Metro (same hours) added on to it.

Folks, this is an incredible deal, especially for people who live in a city such as Newcastle, which is very well served by local buses and not badly served by a subway/light-rail line (Newcastle’s goes directly to the airport, for example). My pass arrived on Tuesday, I used it for the first time on Wednesday night, and in less than 48 hours it saved me more in bus fare than the £5 I spent on the photo. Now, I admit that two of the bus journeys I took were for trips I probably would have done on foot if I hadn’t had the pass, but in my defense I’ll note that those bus trips saved me at least half an hour and I spent that time working on my thesis.

One thing I like about the UK is that senior pricing generally starts at age 60. You are probably aware that I’m a little beyond 60 at this point, so you may be asking why I didn’t get this pass until now, especially since Nexus calls it the card “for people over 60″. Well, UK residents used to become eligible for these passes as soon as they turned 60. Several years ago, however, the government started increasing the age of eligibility, such that for every month your birthday is later, you have to wait an extra two months to get your travel pass. For example, my friend Sue is four months older than I am and she’s had her pass eight months longer.

I do have to be careful not to let this make me lazy.

Four seminars in a month

Three in three days, actually, then one about three weeks later.

Early last month I traveled to Scotland to give seminars on my PhD research to three groups: the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at Dundee University and both the Design Informatics and Social Informatics groups in the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University. The seminars were very similar but slightly different, and I received some good and useful questions and comments from all three groups. Then last week I gave what was basically the Design Informatics talk to the TechWeb group in the Informatics Department at the University of Bologna (Italy), where I got some rather different but also valuable questions and comments. Fortunately, UniBo didn’t ask me to translate my slides, although I did most of my speaking in Italian.

I had gone to Italy mainly for World Information Architecture Day 2015, to give a talk and co-chair a workshop, but that will be a separate blog post because (a) I still have a lot of work to do to get it ready (and a lot of PhD work too, having been gone from that for most of a week), and (b) my WIAD talk and workshop were about a completely different topic (not my PhD research). Since I was in Bologna anyway, I took advantage of the occasion to offer my seminar to UniBo.

Who dealt this mess?

I learned to play bridge as a child. My parents taught my sister and me, starting when we were something like 9 and 11 years old. When we played, every so often my father would throw his hand face down on the table and demand, “Who dealt this mess?”

We soon realized that that always meant he had a good hand.

I feel that way about my data. Occasionally I make a Facebook post saying nothing but “Che casino!” (By that I don’t mean Señor Guevara’s gambling house, haha; no, it’s an Italian expression meaning “what an unholy mess!”) I have just realized this evening, as I wrestled once again with the information architecture of my data analysis, that my collection of data is so rich and so complex that a simple, obvious structure doesn’t emerge by itself; instead, every arrangement I make raises questions and suggests rearrangements. I’m in the process of collecting interview quotes for the results chapter and organizing them into subsections so that I can write up my notes and thoughts and interpretations and theorizing and all that good stuff that will make this a PhD thesis. I am starting off with too many quotes, as cutting is easier than adding. But it ain’t that easy when I have so much great material.

So I ask you: Who dealt this mess?

Some thoughts on what comes next

People have been asking me what I’m going to do after I finish my PhD, and I’ve always said I’m considering various paths. Well, I’ve come to one important conclusion, and I don’t think it will hurt my future if I post that publicly.

I’m going back into industry.

I would love to continue doing research into techno-spirituality, but I can do that without going into academia. After much thought and some discussions with other people, I have concluded that starting work in an academic institution is just not realistic for me at this point in my life — I’d have to start at the bottom and compete with all the other new PhDs, who have much longer careers ahead of them than I do. With my 35 years of professional experience in industry — PLUS a PhD — I am much better positioned to return to user experience consulting. It pays a lot better, too.

But I should be able to meet both needs. That is, I am confident that I can find a way to continue my research (albeit not full time) while working in industry. My topic ties in with several areas of application (no details in this post; that’s for later) and I like to think I will be able to integrate it into my work. Or I can, perhaps, work less than full time and continue the research on my own time. I may even be able to collaborate with people in academia. (I do hope so!) Although lots of things would have to be addressed to make this happen, the upshot is this: Returning to industry doesn’t have to mean giving up doing research that really energizes me.

I’m taking steps to increase my visibility within industry and to explore my opportunities with UK consultancies. And of course I won’t say anything publicly about discussions or negotations with potential employers until I have something established.

And all this while doing my data analysis and writing it up.

Free time? What’s that?!? :-)

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

Downstairs neighbor blues

First I suppose I should make it clear that I am the downstairs neighbor who is singing the blues here. I waited to write this until the problem appeared to be on its way to being resolved. I didn’t want to write it when all I would be doing was grousing, but now that my landlord and I are finally getting some action on it from the property management on the flat upstairs I’m letting y’all in on something that has been a royal pain for me during the last two weeks.

My ceiling has been dripping water.

Directly onto my bed.

Naturally, this started on a Saturday evening. I had come home from an evening out, to find on the duvet a wet spot about a foot by a foot and a half. (I had been hearing occasional drips for a month or two, but nothing I could pinpoint, and until this particular evening I wasn’t even sure that it was dripping into my flat.) A smaller spot had been there the evening before, but it had been raining that day and I thought I had just gotten some water on my day pack and it had drained off onto the bed.

Nope. This time the spot was much larger and I hadn’t placed anything there at all, wet or dry.

Ruined Fitted Sheet

The fitted sheet, ruined by the color of the towel.

When I pulled the sheets back, I saw that the water had soaked through all the way to the mattress. I put a towel over and under my feet (it was late enough that I didn’t feel like making the bed in the guest room) and slept dry enough. I texted my landlord, who said he’d leave a voicemail for the agency responsible for the flat upstairs and would phone them first thing Monday morning.

The next morning (Sunday), the sheets and mattress had all been stained by the dark purple towel. (I don’t have any light-colored towels.)

Sunday night it did it again. But this time I was home and I moved the bed out of the way, and I put a small bin under where most of the drops were coming from. The next morning there was about 3/4 inch of water in that little bin! Some of it splattered onto the sheet, but not in a major way. It’s a good thing I have two lamps, as there is no way I would switch on the overhead light — it might short or (worse) cause a fire! The bed was now jam-up against the chest of drawers, of which I could get into only the top two.

On the Monday, my landlord told me the prop-mgt agency sent their maintenance contractor around. He discovered that a tile had fallen from the wall in the shower area directly above my bedroom. Fortunately, the flat upstairs has a second shower, so they told the students not to use that shower until the wall had been fixed. That would be a while because it needs to dry out. I took some photos of the damage.

On the Wednesday evening it dripped a little, so I found the prop-mgt agency on Twitter and tweeted them about the problem. I figured we were getting nowhere with private entreaties so it was time to escalate by taking the problem public. On the Thursday their Twitter person replied, he or she seemed genuinely concerned, asked for property details and then gave me the number to call. (It was the number my landlord had been calling.)

Dripping Ceiling

The dripping ceiling. Red circles indicate forming drops that can be seen in this photo. There were more.

The following night it started dripping again — about 10:30. (I know the time because of the timestamp on my text to my landlord.) He came over the next morning to look at it and also pointed out a different ceiling stain that was worse than it had been before. I tweeted the prop-mgt agency again and told them the tenants are Chinese students whose English is very poor (I’ve spoken with several of them, or tried to) so they will have to be instructed in Chinese; the agency said they have a Chinese member of staff who could do that.

No drips for more than a week. I was optimistic.

Until last night. I moved the bed out of the way again and put something down to cateh the drips. I texted my landlord, who said he’d phone the agency this morning. We agreed that the only thing to do was disconnect that shower so it couldn’t be used (rather than relying on the tenants to follow the instructions) and I tweeted the prop-mgt agency to say so. When I hadn’t heard from my landlord by 1:30 this afternoon I texted him to ask about the status, and he phoned me back to say he had left several messages for them this morning but they hadn’t gotten back to him. Since I was downtown anyhow, I decided to go to their office and camp out until they took action. That finally got their attention. I explained the situation and they looked it up in their records. I’m not sure that they actually had communicated anything to the tenants in Chinese, but they did tell me that the maintenance person removed several wall tiles and told the tenants not to use that shower until he returned. (Evidently he didn’t tell them why, and they didn’t realize how important it was.)

So I sat in the agency’s office for over an hour this afternoon while they looked in their files and phoned and wrote notes. They did send someone out to remove the shower head. They had a Chinese speaker right there, and he eventually managed to speak with one of the tenants and explain what the problem was and what they needed to do about it. They in turn were upset, he said, because they were told not to use one of their two showers, had not previously been told why, and still were not being told when they would be able to start using it again. I don’t blame them for being upset!

So the property manager and the maintenance contractor and my landlord will have a powwow on Monday early afternoon.

In my opinion, the property management company bears most of the blame for all of this (and I generally dislike talking of “blame”) because they had a responsibility to communicate with their tenants and with the owner of my flat, and they did not do either of those properly (and in some cases not at all).

I do hope that this situation is now about to come to an end. What this has taught me, however, is that if I ever get to the point of being able to buy a dwelling in the UK, it won’t be a ground-floor flat with a student flat (especially one of five or six bedrooms) above it.

I also have to say that throughout all this, my landlord was almost as frustrated as I was. I know that if it had been his flat that was causing the damage he would have had it fixed right away and would have done much better communication with both of the other parties.

And now I’m going to order some new sheets.


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