A week in the land of contradictions

It's the end of another busy week. Work life has been busy to the point of insanity recently, burrowing its way into every available bit of spare time... if you consider every weekend since mid October to be spare time rather than "essential time", that is. I'm actually inclined to the latter view: while happy to declare that my work is captivating and inspiring, some downtime is definitely needed. In the last month I've been to two week-long conferences in Italy, snatched a week back in Durham and then spent the last week in Chicago. After one more week in Durham, in which to pay some attention to demonstrating and marking Frank's excellent new computational physics course, I'm off on my travels again, this time to CERN for a week. And then it's Christmas and skiing; January is looking a bit crazy, and I'm trying not to think about that. Fortunately Jo has been a star and given me some (unearned) slack, but this schedule isn't really fair on either of us: I think I'll be imposing a more restricted travel schedule in the New Year and hopefully sending some collaborators out to do the salesman thing instead ;-)

Anyway, reflections on the past week: I have to say, I've really enjoyed Fermilab. Most people seem to bitch about the "boring site", the strip malls of West Chicago, the weather and anything else that springs to mind, but I must be a bit funny in the head because I like it all. Okay, not the strip malls --- a bit of restriction on the suburban planning process would have been welcome --- but here's a list of hat I've been up to, other than giving talks and coding up experimental analyses in Rivet: * a night taxi ride from the airport to St Charles through the first drifting Chicago snows of the year; * arriving at Wilson Hall, a wonderful piece of high-rise architecture which combines the brutal functionality of US Government and military sites with physics quirkiness. I was sorely tempted to step across the abyss on the 15th floor, but the consequences of a silly mistake made my stomach lurch in a most un-climbery way! * that dry sub-zero weather... all cold, crisp and wintery. I'm a cold-weather person, but it's so much better without the British innovation of constant drizzle. It keeps everything nice and clean, too, when the blowing leaves don't have enough moisture to turn to mulch everywhere. * this place gets tornados. Something about the proximity of undergroud storm shelters (some in the experiment control rooms!_ makes me feel like just staying here is somehow a wee bit hardcore! * staying in Fermilab Village: a former town that was abandoned and restored when the site was established. It's like a colourfully-painted summer camp, with a freaky Physics-Amish aesthetic. Cool. * the FNAL wildlife: a herd of buffalo, hovering hawks and honking flocks of pre-migration geese; * I hired a huge, heavy and completely rubbish cruiser bike which wouldn't go uphill without de-chaining (that's a problem on a single-speed bike with no chain tensioner and a big metal chain guard!) and cruised around the site and the area on it. I must ship my current bike out to CERN when I retire it... * having to cycle several miles out of the way for lunch because some fool put a particle accelerator in the way with lakes and a moat in the middle! * the awesomeness of the Two Brothers Tap House, and particularly the Northwind Stout. Dangerous stuff. The friendliness of the staff is amazing, too... and it's genuine, too (or really well faked); * biking back to the lab post-beer through driving snow, stopping to throw rocks on the frozen lakes ;) * and tomorrow I "do Chicago". Looking forward to it.

Anyway, from the above it's probably clear that I'm a cold-weather romantic (I love Lund for similar reasons) and sure, the initial enchantment probably fades fast, but it's been a great week. It's also good to remind myself of all the good things about the US: aside from the strip malls, sprawling suburbs and the meathead portion of the population that drives the commercialism and tackiness of mass US culture, most Americans I meet are friendly, genuine and intelligent. And there is that underlying feel of a pioneering, self-sustaining community still "in the air"... I can see why Americans are so enthusiastic about the importance of community, although maybe that same tight-knit community ethos lends itself to the less-positive lack of interest in the outside world among the population at large. Maybe I'm (as usual) sampling from a special subset of the population, since I can't match the people I meet to what we in Europe see as quintessentially American. Or maybe it's just hard for us to see beyond the in-your-face nature of US sports and TV and appreciate the similarities rather than differences between the cultures; the presentation may be different, but the underlying psyche isn't so far off, especially between the kind of educated people that you're going to meet at a physics lab. And you can hardly blame individuals for only being able to deviate a certain distance from the social norms of the country they're "embedded" in; fill in the GR analogies for yourself if you're that way inclined. Or maybe the tide is turning --- America's so-called disaffected youth turned out in near record numbers a couple of weeks ago to vote a young(ish) black man with talk of change and tolerance into the highest office in the land: it's hard to find a downside to that. Okay, the fact that the ludicrous opposition campaign fielded by the GOP wasn't immediately laughed out of existence is still cause for concern... but let's enjoy the victories while we have the opportunity!

The one thing that I find offensive and shocking is the obvious social inequalities: everyone cleaning the floors or serving (baaaad) food in the FNAL canteen is Mexican. Maybe I've just not lived in a big enough city in the UK to notice such blatant correlations between race and social status. But then I have a European unease about the fundamental ethos of US society as "every man for himself" capitalism. "Socialism" is about as far from a perjorative as it can get in my dictionary, but was recently used by Hank Paulson et al as if it was a synonym for collective agriculture, tractor production quotas, one child laws and 5 year plans. Is "spreading the wealth a little" really such a bad idea in a country which simultaneously manages to be the world's richest but to have virtually no healthcare or unemployment support for it's poorest citizens?

It's a land of contradictions alright: the thing that's surprised me most this week has been how much the friendliness and community spirit of the people I've met and worked with has contradicted the less savoury aspects of US culture that receive most attention in British stereotyping of our Yankee friends. Maybe I wouldn't live here long-term, but there's plenty that's charming about the US... even in West Chicago!


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