Short Take: Summer Travel


For many academic researchers in the science and engineering disciplines, summer offers the chance to travel far and wide, for rejuvenating research contacts with colleagues and for conferences. It does help when the venue for the travel is a off-the-beaten-path old university town in Europe, rather than … just to pick a place at random, Baltimore, where I have been twice in the last two months and will be making one more trip this summer. Lest Baltimoreans take offense, let me state categorically that this is a random choice that reflects views of some of my colleagues, but not mine.

I will ruminate in this post on what for me makes for a memorable trip, a “meh” trip, or one of those that are forgotten soon after coming back to home base. Let’s do this in reverse order so that we end on a high note.

The Forgotten Trip

I land in San Diego after a five hour plane ride. The magazines on the plane wax eloquent about the sunny beaches and the glorious surf where I am headed. My head is full of the charts, plots, and contorted calculations I will need to present to the distinguished attendees, including the program managers who will determine the fate of the next round of our project. I know I will be there for two days and at the end I will be one of those folks presenting a summary report to the entire group. Which means I will have to concentrate from the first day to the last. And in between there is a paper submission deadline, which my student back home assures me is well under control but which my obsessive compulsive nature will make me iterate over at least half a dozen times.

I land and the Lyft ride whisks me through the 25 mile ride to my hotel. I can feel the surf and the sand in the air, perhaps in my mind’s eye I see and hear the people at the surf and the sand. Before long, I am standing in the lobby of an impersonal chain hotel with a formally smiling receptionist. The next two days are technically entertaining enough. I meet old friends, have stimulating conversation with colleagues, hold my own while answering questions about my deliberately complicated charts and plots, and perhaps (though I do not know this for a fact) ensure that the next 2 years of our project funding is safe. But the closest I come to the surf and the sand is when we go out for dinner at the end of the day with a group of colleagues and as we are walking to the restaurant a bunch of young hipsters pass us by in a large convertible with an array of surfboards tethered to the side.

The “Wish I Had Done More” Trip

I land in London after a six hour plane ride. The meeting is at the Imperial College in South Kensington. Despite the crowded London cityscape, the place does not feel like an urban jungle. There are narrow streets, some cobbled, raising memories of Dickensian characters, and people everywhere, not just whizzing by in cars but around you walking, talking, eating, gawking, but around you. Anyway, since I have to prepare I find my way to the Tube station and get going to my hotel close to the Imperial College.

I am much more likely to take public transport in Europe or Asia than here and I have almost always enjoyed the experience. Much has been said about public transport letting you get close to the pulse of a city and it is all true. The tube in London also appeals to my practical self in that it is the fastest mode of transport.

The next 2 days are productive — interesting papers get discussed, I learn a few things conceptual, one of our papers gets accepted, and the constant delight in such professional meetings, meeting old friends. I get to sample just a little bit of the city.

The “Store it in Persistent Memory” Trip

Then there are trips which you are eager to dedicate some of your precious persistent memory to remember. There is the satisfaction of meeting old friends and colleagues, the fulfilling feeling that you get from learning something new and having those “Aaha” moments, the joy of moving your technical community forward, perhaps in a small way, and the exhilaration of trekking off the beaten path and discovering something small and meaningful, meaningful likely only to you.

So I make it to Toulouse in France for the annual meeting of the dependability community. And there is a workshop held right before that, which you have to pull some favors to wangle an invitation to. This is held in a little village (Soreze if you must know) which is so remote that even most French folks from the area have not heard of it. That is where the workshop is held, in a medieval abbey that has been reconstructed into a hotel. Tall ceilings, no AC, little in the way of English-speaking staff … and the unexpected bonanza — the internet at the abbey goes out on a Sunday. We have to wait till Monday (at least) to get connected back to the network. This has the expected effects — us super connected academics get the withdrawal symptoms and then after battling the nine stages, we settle down to some good old-fashioned brainstorming.

Abbaye-ecole de Soreze, or our home for 5 days for the workshop in south France

Monday is still Internet-less and it is as well because that is the day of a trip to the local farmer’s market at the nearest “large” town. Local cheese galore, gulped down with local wine. The only cloud in the otherwise spotless sky is that I have to pretend to know to some generous degree of approximation, which wine I should have with which cheese. The evening back at the abbey is a few hours of brainstorming, laying out where we have come in the field of dependability in different problem contexts and where we have to go. It is indeed refreshing to look back and trace the evolution of a sub-field — it sheds light on which ideas have stuck and possibly why, and which ideas have gone through the hype cycle and are resting for good in a quiet place. There are lessons to be learned from history and I feel we do too little of that as we rush to our shiny new claims.

So these 5 oh-so-fleeting days capture those trips that I effortlessly make room for in my memory store. And blissfully, in my life as a professor, they are rare enough to be worthwhile but not heartbreakingly rare.

So this gives a snapshot of the three kinds of work-related trips I make — the easy-to-forget one, the “meh” one, and the this-is-for-keeps one. Each summer I hope there will be a fair mix and this summer has not disappointed so far. I will tell you more in these pages of the last kind and the others … well … you have better things to do.


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