Re: How to live on $500/month?



El Castor <NotAnyone@xxxxxxxxxxxx> writes:

At one time I lived in Berkeley, and met a guy (a friend of a friend)
who was visiting UC from the faculty of a university on the east
coast.

El Castor's posting raises a few issues which I'll take in turn.

It was a sabbatical, but he was being paid to essentially lay
around for a year.

For those who don't know, many universities give a professor a certain
amount of time off every so many years (typically every 7 years), with
full or half salary. (E.g. a semester off with full salary, a year off
with half salary, etc.). I'm not an expert on this practice since I have
never had a sabbatical since I was never employed by a university for
long enough to qualify for one. I took one year off from teaching at
Brandeis University so that I could visit Tata Institute of Fundamental
Research in Bombay, but Brandeis didn't pay me for the year I was away.

It may be automatic at some places, but I know that some universities make
you apply for a sabbatical and require you to explain how you intend to spend
the time. Many universities, however detrimental their working conditions
might be for the research of their faculty, do want their faculty to do
research and sabbaticals are one of the ways they support it. Another is
to contribute to the costs of traveling to conferences, especially if the
prof is going to present a paper. Another is to pay their faculty a
guaranteed annual wage even for the summer when they aren't required to
do any teaching.

It is very difficult to tell whether someone is working when they are
doing mathematics. That's partly because bean counters are not mind readers
and also partly because the onset of a key idea is often entirely
unpredictable. Hadamard wrote a book entitled, "The Psychology of Invention
in the Mathematical Field". He describes how the Poincare, at the moment he
stepped onto a bus, got the answer to something he had been working on.
This experience is by no means unusual. I once went away on a vacation from
Brandeis for a couple of weeks. Matsusaka, one of the professors, asked me
if I was going to a conference or to another university, and I told him
that I was just taking a vacation, pure and simple. He smiled and said,
"That's the best way to do mathematics".

There is a videotape of Stephen Smale describing his experiences with,
if I remember right (and maybe I don't) the h-cobordism theorem and
the Poincare conjecture in higher dimensions. He was, I vaguely recall,
in Brazil and had some trouble with some people with some authority over
his funding who couldn't understand how he could be working if he was
sitting at the beach all day. However, that was where his brain made
its fundamental breakthroughs.

So, I don't know if you can necessarily trust your perceptions that
your late friend was just sitting on his takapouli.

I recall him arguing that the intelligentsia (of
which he counted himself a member) should be given a year now and
then, at taxpayer expense, to refresh their minds.

He might have been a better mathematician than he was a public policy
consultant or a public relations representative. He might also have
liked being provocative, as a kind of sport.

I recall speaking to one high school teacher who told me that schools
give teachers a year off every seven years to "refresh their batteries".
Since high school teachers don't normally do research, that might mean
taking more education courses or visiting another high school.

These details aside, funding is a very complex subject. There are a lot
of things that are done in a peculiar ways because of the procrustean nature
of the funding. Schools invest a lot of time and effort in finding creative
ways to use the funding they get to pay themselves for doing things. For
example, I was invited to give a talk at a university and visit for a couple
of weeks and was told that I would receive a certain amount of money for the
talk and to cover my expenses. This looked very generous but I understood
it better when, in an effort to save most of the money, I arranged to stay
in a youth hostel for the duration. When I informed the math department that
my lodging expenses would only come to $500, the adminstrator freaked out and
tried to get me to sign a statement saying that I had driven there and had
incurred a lot of expenses driving. I refused to lie and they wound up having
to give me the money. What they had expected to happen, instead of my staying
at a youth hostel, was that I would follow the course of least resistance and
stay at lodging provided by the university, whereupon the university could
then pay itself for housing me. The logic of this was dictated by certain
grants that had specific allocations for specific kinds of expenses.

So, if the mathematician you met was getting paid at taxpayer's expense,
there was probably either some grant involved or else he was working at
a state university, where the taxpayer pays for everything. Either way,
the funding has a peculiar logic of its own and one has to stand back from
it before becoming too judgemental about it.

I was still liberal
back then, but the arrogance of that jerk really ticked me off. Here
is the curious thing. The friend who introduced me was a math major,
and the jerk was also a mathematician. I wonder if Allan ever met my
friend, Mike Ottinger, perhaps while visiting UC Berkeley? Mike, by
the way, went on to graduate school in Oregon, and was killed a year
later while climbing Sentinel Rock in Yosemite.

I don't know him and never heard of him. I searched for his name in a
data base of mathematical publications and apparently he never published
anything.
--
Ignorantly,
Allan Adler <ara@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
* Disclaimer: I am a guest and *not* a member of the MIT CSAIL. My actions and
* comments do not reflect in any way on MIT. Also, I am nowhere near Boston.
.