Mona Lisa Smile

This page written circa 2 November, 2021.

I have told Waikato University that I will retire next March. I can no longer bear to watch EE unravel. I built, lived, and breathed that degree. Now decisions are taken without consultation or announcement, based solely on the bottom line, not even lip service paid to anything higher. Rumour (alone) informs me my final-year mechatronics paper has been cancelled. Will students be left high and dry? The pilot knows the plane is going down but does not pull back on the stick. Traffic control says push, so they push. Good thing Air New Zealand is not run like the universities.

We rewatched Mona Lisa Smile. This is a glowing yet underrated film with at least 8 luminaries in the marvellous cast, portraying at once the best and worst of a "finishing school disguised as a college". The students are brilliant, well-heeled, well-connected, ambitious, conscientious, and naive. I should have such students! I have had some, but not so much any more.

Knowing that I have several grad students, and that there is nobody else qualified to teach analog in 2022, I have offered to stay on a part-time contract. This seems more reasonable than leaving the place cold. We have to be around Waikato for at least another year for Kay to finish her MA and her novel, although I am working strenuously to spend the quarter from the winter solstice to the spring equinox in Sydney if not further north. I want to be busy, warm, and I want to catch up with people in Oz that I miss. Ideally I might wind down from 50% to zero in the next five years (if they promise me an Emeritus at the end). Radio silence, so far.

The last 12 weeks have been spent in some level of lockdown as Gaia's delta variant leaks out in a race against vaccinators. To its credit, NZ's vaccination system is now outpacing many other nations. To stave off boredom and reduce my screen time I took up brewing & distilling, finished a layout, finished my Plasmadrive train control, and wrote a paper on model controller performance. I have started the "wOOdmine" wall-mount switchback to adapt an alpine cog rail system to deep mine use. In the distilling space I bought a Copperhead fractional still, normally a "cooling management" type of still. These are relatively easy to run, but very hard to make precise. The still can do 89% ABV from 7% in one run, but 89% is the limit no matter what else I optimise, so a column extension is in order. I have been trying to implement automatic control, but the system is very nonlinear. I work on a drip flow sensor. This proves to be tricky, but it will make a marvellous student project... or it would have if the degree still supported anything that interesting. I am aiming to fix the flow and get real-time readout of the reflux in the column.

Sheer luck left me with no teaching this semester. Work has centered around the Battery Modelling instead. In the 20 months of closed borders this has gone stunningly well. One patent filed, one going to prov, one in disclosure, three grad students, and three papers in various stages of prep. It gives me a chance to work with Marcus. He is all that is left of Physics, and he is brilliant, Cambridge and Bristol. My colleague in WaikatoLink plans a spinout around the battery stuff. I really like working with her. This has kept my work interesting and productive. I see more appeal in being the CTO of a spinout than I do in staying at this University. It seems she has a pear orchard, an interest in cider and in gin, plus a pizza oven in a paddock of an alpaca farm. I had a deja vu feeling talking to her. I was strongly reminded of the first time I talked to Dan & Steph, a feeling of... maybe these are people with whom we could get on... I can feel the eccentrifugal force.

My colleague Bill suddenly lost the hearing in one ear, couple years ago. He was told he should have gone to A&E pronto, treat fast or lose it. I never thought I would need to know that. Two weeks ago all my left ear HF went. After failed de-waxing, I bounced about Hamilton until I found two lovely doctors at the Victoria clinic. Now hearing recovered, still on a steroid (dangerous or illegal, it's better than speed) I just had an MRI scan. First time inside the machine, it sings loud and robotically, could be a Kraftwerk concert. Being a physicist, I see evidence that it was actually a rock of wax, but that does not explain balance issues, so happy to have alternatives eliminated. I am told that 2% of people with these symptons actually have some sort of tumour. Ordinarily this whole episode would have seemed more significant and demanded its own blog. This month it's just another thing.

Returning to the state of universities, I feel good that my kids have American passports. Times are tight, America is not great any more, and clowns have been elected in the USA, the UK, and Australia, a hat-trick of democratic extremes. Angry voters make bad voters; as K says in MIB, a person may be clever but people are stupid. Nevertheless, Donald and Boris occasionally say incisive things, and their lands think of the big picture and the future more than we do here. Boris says something to the effect of "Seven billion people and you waste my time with global warming?". Gaia's on the case... covid and the delta upgrade are simply her latest experiment to address the h.sapiens pandemic. The catastrophe anticipated in The Fourth Turning and The Storm Before the Calm may come, and I fancy the store of skills in a nation's people will be the engine that drives recovery. Then on to another boom like the 1950s, is the 20-year prediction. I find it hard to visualise NZ catching that train right now.

In the past, NZ has survived by importing brains. Once the containers were mostly British, but the corridors of Waikato U are filled with Americans, Iranians, Chinese, Australians, Indians, you name it. Beautiful, practical multiculturalism, 20 years behind Australia as usual. Sina has almost finished his PhD on teaching sustainability. Supervising him has given me a better view of sustainability; I should probably say a broader view. Importing brains is not sustainable. The famous quip about Kiwis leaving for Australia increasing the IQ of both nations actually operates in reverse, and it is only the drain on less-desirable nations such as Iran, China, and briefly the US & UK, that has kept the brain pool from going dry. When things turn around, our feeder pools may dry up.

Of course, the question of "what will you do in retirement" inevitably comes up. I rather fancy I'll find something good, given the recent level of activity, as someone reflected to me on a zoom this week. Maybe I'll enjoy Newtown and Hillcrest for a while, chase up old friends. Kay and I might build a tiny church on wheels. Julia Roberts' character in MLS has such popularity that she is offered a contract to stay. Its conditions are a remarkably accurate embodiment of bad pedagogy. Bad education because management think they know what is best, even in boom times. She does not take the job.

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