Category Archives: logistics

Beginning to look at Cambridge housing

Yesterday I went for my first viewing of a flat in Cambridge. I’ve been looking at the possibilities since September, but so far I’ve stuck to searching on rental websites (mostly Rightmove) and hadn’t gone so far as to contact a letting agent until the last couple of weeks. Mostly that’s because the properties were available much sooner than I could move into them, but now they are coming into the right time of year and it’s time for me to start looking more seriously. As with the car, I can’t sign a contract until 1 February or later, but I don’t want to wait until then to take my search beyond the web. The web searching I’ve done, though, has given me a good idea of what kinds of places are where. I need to study the bus routes and operating hours as well, so that I can consider taking a place that’s not within about half a mile of the station.

Anyway, the location of the flat I saw yesterday is great for getting to the office and to other parts of the UK, and it’s got two bedrooms and two bathrooms (good for sharing) and an “undercroft” secure parking space, so I was all set to like it. I found it a bit disappointing, though — it was smaller than it appears in the photos, and it smelled of catbox (although no cat was to be seen and I didn’t find myself sneezing). I assume the smell can be eliminated with a thorough cleaning. The place reminded me of cookie-cutter apartments from my 20s, although its proximity to the train station and the presence of the underneath parking garage speaks of a large professional tenant community. That particular flat will probably be taken before I am satisfied with what I find, so I doubt I’ll end up there, but it was worth going to have a look.

I’ve got two more viewings scheduled for next week; both of these are terraced houses (US: townhouses, row houses) and farther from the station. Slightly lower in rent. We’ll see. Hoping to see a couple of other places as well.

One agent sent me listings for a couple of other places. When I told her why I’m not willing to consider anything in Trumpington, she hooted with laughter and said she’ll never think of that neighborhood the same way again.

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Getting settled in the UK

I arrived at Heathrow Airport on time, just after 6 on Thursday morning. I had a brief scare just before landing, when I discovered that my passport had fallen out of my pocket while I slept on the plane. The flight attendant took a flashlight and looked all around behind and under my seat, and she finally spotted it in a place too far down for anyone’s arm to reach. She came to the rescue with a pair of tongs, and the guy behind me reached in and pulled it out. Whew!

As we landed, I was aware of mixed feelings — not only excitement but also a fair amount of trepidation. It’s no small feat to get funding offers from two universities, and I felt acutely the weight of expectations and the need to live up to them. Maybe this is why people have been telling me that what I am doing is brave.

My friend Dave came to meet me at the airport, and we loaded my bags in his car and headed north. We took the motorway part way, then we headed off into the North Yorkshire Moors. It was a bit past heather-blooming time, but the landscape was still beautiful. And the skies!

We arrived in the Newcastle area just past 4pm, and although the Tyne Tunnel was more convenient to where we were headed (Whitley Bay), I insisted we go through the city to see the Sage, the river bridges, and the Design School building. Dave was suitably impressed.

From the university area we headed east through Byker, Wallsend (which I realized — duh! — is so called because it’s at the end of Hadrian’s Wall), North Shields, and Tynemouth. I phoned my landlady to let her know we were arriving, and she came out to hand us a parking permit and help with my (five!) suitcases. (It feels weird to call her a landlady, as I’m more than 20 years older than she is… but legally, that’s what she is.)

The flat is OK. The shower is pretty large (which she had told me about) and there is plenty of room for toiletries in the area behind the sink. The bed is basically a futon — substantially harder than I like but not as uncomfortable as some I’ve tried. She had told me there’s plenty of storage space, and I have to conclude that she and I have different ideas about how much storage space is “plenty” (especially after I’ve spent better than a decade with 1600 square feet to myself). It smells slightly of must (more in the hallway than inside the apartment) and the views are nothing, but the landlady is congenial and it *is* very close to the sea. It’s also very close to the big party zone of Whitley Bay, and Dave (who was sleeping on that side of the flat) heard a hellaciously loud altercation last night. But I’ll give it a month before I decide what to do.

Yesterday was a busy day. I went to the university to enrol (I’m in the UK now so I’m going to try to use UK spelling, although “enrol” with one “l” looks exceedingly weird). I got my student email address, computer user name and password, and instructions for getting my student ID. I then went to the bank to get Internet banking set up. Then I went back to uni for a meeting with my supervisor, which went well, very well indeed. (More on that later.) Finally, I went to T-Mobile to ask about getting my phone number transferred to my iPhone. They said I’d have to transfer it to another provider first, and then back to T-Mobile. It’s weird to have to do that, but it shouldn’t cost anything (or not much) except time.

Mark (my supervisor) and I determined my first few steps — more indepth literature review and what kinds of papers I’m going to start with — and I’m very happy with what we decided. We talked a little about the Project Approval that needs to happen at three months into my PhD, and Mark said he thought the proposal I prepared for my application could almost stand alone for that. (This is a Very Good Thing.) We batted around some ideas for approaches and themes to the first two papers, and each of us liked the other’s suggestions very much. (I am SO excited about working with Mark!) We agreed to meet every Tuesday afternoon regarding my research, which pleases me greatly because I have read that it’s common to meet every two weeks or even once a month. Mark also suggested creating a group to discuss books and films related to design, which would meet every other week. It may be just the two of us at first, but we both hope that other students will join in.

Today I linked my US and UK accounts so I can transfer money back and forth (mostly forth). Also went to a photo booth to get some photos made for my student transport pass. Tomorrow I’m going to the service at Newcastle Unitarian Church, then to T-Mobile to see about my phone, then to Tynemouth where I’m told there’s a used book fair.

Then Monday I head back in to the University to get started.

It’s happening. It’s really happening.

Mostly too busy to post

I have a lot going on to get ready — I leave five weeks from today! — and am feeling a mixture of have-a-handle-on-it and omg-there’s-too-damn-much-to-do; or maybe I should say sometimes I’m feeling one and sometimes the other.

I’ve decided to donate my car to a nonprofit organization — they will come and get it at a time and place of my convenience and I won’t have to spend time photographing and advertising it. I’m going to have them come to a friend’s house, whereupon she and I will have lunch and then she will take me to the airport. This is also good because I can keep using my car until the last minute and won’t have to rent one at all.

I’ve also decided to build a storage room in my basement, having found out just how much it would cost to have a company come and take stuff away and store it for me for three years (or maybe even four, if I do a post-doc). I’ll have to spend more up front (which is the real disadvantage), but it will cost me less in the long run (probably about 60% as much)… and when it’s all over I’ll still have a storage room in my basement.

I’ve also discovered the existence of two apartments in a location I totally love. Cross your fingers!

Banking wasn’t sorted, as it turns out, but it is now

I’ve discovered that the Lloyds TSB Offshore account in US dollars is not treated like a US bank account after all, which means I can’t make electronic transfers to it from my other US accounts without paying a wire transfer fee, which runs around $25-$30 each. So yesterday I opened a real US account with HSBC and in 2-3 weeks or so I should have a UK account with them that I can link to my US account. If I roll over an IRA from where it is now to HSBC, that will give me the minimum balance I need to avoid monthly fees. Unfortunately, HSBC doesn’t have a retail presence in Italy, but the other factors are much more important. (Citi does, but they don’t have branches in Newcastle, and it’s very important to have a local branch where I can go to speak with a live person if I need one.)

I’m going to call Lloyds TSB tomorrow and close that account. Just as well I hadn’t yet made a deposit.

Banking sorted, I think

I’ve been hearing stories about the woes of student banking, so I started looking into alternatives, focusing on banks that operate in both the US and the UK. I discovered that Lloyds TSB offers a “premium international account” that allows the holder to make deposits, withdrawals, and transfers between US and UK currencies, and you can even get it in euros at no extra charge. (It appears to involve two or three separate accounts — one for each currency — but they are linked.) Yesterday I gave them my info by phone (would have done it on line but I had to call with a question and the guy wanted to take my info right then), and today I went off to a Lloyds TSB branch to have them certify the documents proving my identity and residence address, and this afternoon I mailed off the application. This will make my life a lot easier, especially considering that some of my income will be from US sources and will be in dollars (surviving spouse benefits from my late husband’s social security, and rental on my house) and of course I’ll need to access it in sterling (and in euros when I go to Italy and other euro-spending countries). Having a checking account (called a “current account” in the UK) this much in advance will also make a tremendous difference in my ability to get a lease on an apartment.

Whew. What a relief to have this taken care of. (It’s not a done deal yet, I suppose, but I don’t expect to encounter any problems with my application.)

It’s official: I’m going to Northumbria

Northumbria University School of Design

Just before noon today I picked up my formal studentship offer from the Graduate School at Northumbria University and then went to the Design School to sign their papers.

In the last week I’ve had various discussions with several people at both Northumbria and City, and although I’m sure I would have been happy at City, the decision basically came down to two factors:

  • There are more people at Northumbria who are “in tune” with my topic and who could give me the kind of inspiration and guidance that I feel would nurture not only my project but also my enthusiasm for it.
  • The reasons that Northumbria wants me have more to do with my project and less to do with my standing in the professional community. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter — it’s nice that City felt I could contribute to the university’s work in this way — but my supervisor at Northumbria is absolutely passionate about my topic and feels it could be ground breaking. There’s no substitute for that.

So it’s a done deal. I’m going to start my research project at Northumbria in mid-October of this year. This means I’ll have less than four months to get everything ready. Yowie!

Oh, and I bought a T-shirt. :-)

A decision to sleep on

I found out tonight, to my great pleasure and delight, that Northumbria University has decided to offer me a studentship. So now I do have to make a decision. In one sense I’ll be glad to know where I’ll be going, and to be able to plan. Alternatively, I’ll be sad to give up the other possibility.

There is no choice without letting go of the thing not chosen.

It’s great to be wanted

This week I’m at the Designing Interactive Systems 2012 conference, which happens to be in Newcastle upon Tyne. A PhD student from City University is here, and we participated in the same workshop yesterday and have had some good conversations about City. He said he had been urged to “butter me up” — and although he said he was kidding it’s clear that he wants to promote City as a good place for me to do my PhD. Much of what he has said does sound good.

On the other front, I expect to get word within a few days about Northumbria and whether they will offer me funding.

It’s good to have a couple of weeks in Newcastle to get a better feel for the place (even though the vast majority of the time is taken up with conferences). I may go down to Durham while I’m here (~20min by train), because from what I understand it’s my only reasonable possibility of finding a Renaissance group to sing with.

Another concern about Newcastle is the availability of flights to the rest of the world.

This is the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in years. The good news is that either choice will be a good one.

Flight booked!

I’ve booked my flight to London! I had several considerations in deciding how to get myself across the Pond* and (if I end up going to Northumbria) how to get myself to Newcastle from there. I had three major concerns:

  • when I have to be there
  • how much stuff I can take with me
  • how much time it will take to get my house ready to rent

Both universities’ terms officially start on 1 October (which is a Monday this year), but for a PhD student that’s less relevant because we don’t take courses and don’t have to be in class. I’ve been assured that later in October will be fine. So I investigated the various options and came to a conclusion:

I’m flying first class!

It actually turns out to be my most reasonable option, believe it or not. I’ve got enough United** miles for a one-way saver award ticket in first class (only a little over twice as much as a saver award in Economy). First class allows me to check three 50lb. bags free, which will provide for getting a reasonable amount of my stuff there, and it should allow me to sleep fairly well on the flight. (I don’t sleep well in United’s biz class because the seat angle hurts my back and I can’t turn sideways. First class seats lie flat.)

For this purpose it’s important that I take an overnight flight — it will be far easier to proceed to my final destination in the daytime, whether that be London or Newcastle — but the earliest available overnight first-class saver award seat was for 3 October, and it would have me change planes in Chicago and lengthen my total travel time by about six hours. Not very convenient.

So I’ve booked the flight for October 17. In addition to allowing more time for the house to be finished, this delay will have the added benefit of expanding my planned house-finishing/going-away party with a 60th birthday party at home. Also, it will allow for the floors to be refinished in an empty house after I leave and before any tenants might arrive. I’ll tell the rental agents to advertise occupancy for 1 November instead of 1 October.

I’ve never flown first class before, and I doubt I ever will again. In addition to being the most practical for my needs on this particular trip, I feel it’s a fitting way to say hello to a new adventure. Wish me buon viaggio!


*Not whether to go by plane or canoe, of course.

**USAirways, may grackles peck eternally at their pea-picking little hearts, limits the use of miles to round-trip tickets.

Google Maps used to give directions from Washington to London by telling you to drive to New York and then canoe across the Atlantic. Sadly, that feature seems to have been discontinued.

Continuing the proposal / application preparation

I had a longish (90 minutes) Skype call with my prospective supervisor at Northumbria (Mark Blythe) last week — and I forgot to blog about it! So now I’m writing a short post about how it went.

He said that one of the first things I should do is settle on a title. We talked about the word “spiritual” and how, although it captures my sense of the feeling, tends to convey to most people a theme of religion (which is not what I mean), and he suggested “numinous” — but in my view that probably won’t be understood by the general public and would make it harder for me to recruit people for interviews. I later talked to a friend about it, and we kind of came up with “deep connection”, so I’m thinking of going with that. But I’ll probably add some better description before I start recruiting. I might use “numinous” or “transcendent” in the title even if I use more plain-language wording in my recruitment. I will be speaking on an aspect of this topic at the Interaction 12 conference, so I have to settle on something within the next six weeks.

Mark also said I shouldn’t be too specific about what I hope to use this sort of user experience for, and suggested that I look at helping elderly people improve their mood. Depression in older people is known to be an issue, and I’m thinking that it might be a practical application that could help me get funding.

I had thought of using this feeling of transcendence to facilitate behavior change, and I still might do that. I’ve just signed up to take B.J. Fogg’s week-long mini-workshop called “3 Tiny Habits“, where the participants practice a method of developing small habits (ones that take less than 30 seconds) and Fogg improves his approach to teaching the development of habits. I think this might be useful in my personal life and it might also give me some ideas for my research. Who knows what the connection might be — or whether there is one at all? But at the least, it should be interesting. Stay tuned.

I also continued reading the papers I downloaded. Gotta start writing stuff up. Oh — I’ve decided it would be too much of a distraction to consider yet another university at this point. So I’m going to focus on Northumbria but look into working with Sue Thomas at De Montfort when I get ready to develop an application to investigate the concepts.

Finally, I obtained transcripts from my previous degrees. The one from N.C. State said I had a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics, so of course I had to call and ask them to correct it to Bachelor of Science. They responded very quickly, and I expect to have my replacement paper copies in a few days.

Finally, I’m making further progress toward emptying the house of stuff I don’t need. A friend helped me disassemble a decrepit bookcase and I took that outside for the County to pick up as bulk trash, and I’ve brought a bunch of old cans of paint, stain, and paint thinner upstairs in prep for taking them to the hazmat collection at the dump (probably tomorrow). I’m still gathering stuff to take to the NAMI thrift store (and that will probably go on for months :).