Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mysteries and Mash-ups

There seems to be a growing shortage of Rwandan milk and cheese. Rwanda produces gouda in large quantities. I've tried it, and it's ok. I decided last week to buy a wheel so I could make cheese sandwiches for lunch and afternoon snacks. I went to the store, and to my amazement, I found no Rwandan cheese. This was very odd, since usually there are stacks and stacks of mediocre Rwandan gouda. Not this time. There was Kenyan and Ugandan cheese, and even some from Holland. But it was all too expensive---about twice as much as I wanted to pay.

Rwanda milk is also disappearing. I usually buy Inyange milk, a local Rwandan producer. I haven't seen any Inyange milk for almost two weeks, except for some small containers of skim milk. (Almost all milk here is the ultra-pasteurised stuff, solid in sealed cardboard containers.) The last time I bought milk I had to buy a Ugandan brand. There does not seem to be a shortage of Rwandan yogurt, however. I asked at a store the other day what was going on with milk, and one of the store owners said that there weren't any milk shipments, and he didn't know why. I read on a blog a brief mention of a "cheese strike." But that is all I know. Searching online reveals that last week there was a government report about how milk can help fight malnutrition. There is no other word about disappearing cheese and milk, but this is not surprising. There is not much news here.

Early afternoon yesterday I went to grab a moto to go to a hotel where I like to work. A group of street kids appeared and greeted me enthusiastically. This is not that unusual, but it is not often that I see street kids in my neighborhood. As I was negotiating the fare with the moto driver, I realized what was going on: the kids had a little puppy that they were trying to sell me. It was quite small, and looked generically beige. It seemed to be ok. I think they wanted 2000 RwF for it. (This is about $4.) The puppy had some sort of a colorful homemade leash on it. I declined the offer and motoed away.

Where did the kids get the dog? I'm guessing that they stole it. The leash didn't look like something they would make. Street kids here are not at all menacing. It is somewhat hard to picture them stealing a puppy. The kids seemed friendly and not desperate. Maybe they weren't street kids, but were just kids who lived in the neighborhood? Seems unlikely. They should have been in school. Should I have purchased the puppy and tried to find it a home? What was the puppy's fate? If I bought it, would I just be encouraging puppy theft? And what would I do with the dog, anyway? I haven't seen the kids since.

Yesterday I had a burrito (of sorts) and pasta salad for dinner. (I was recently reminded, while watching a video of a talk given in Maine about geology in Peru, that "burrito" means little donkey in Spanish.) The burrito and pasta salad came from a grocery store called La Sierra. It is near downtown and is run by Indians. The burrito was good. It had cheese in it. The pasta salad wasn't bad, either.

When I run I go past a large church. There are often choir groups practicing outside. I am impressed that different groups congregate fairly close to each other---certainly within earshot---and sing different songs. It makes for nice listening as I plod by. From my balcony I can hear the calls to prayer from the local mosque. Sometimes two calls for prayer occur at the same time, I presume from two different mosques. It is not as sonorous as the choir groups, but it is interesting to listen to nevertheless.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Solitary Sunday

It has been a solitary Sunday for me in Kigali. I have said hello to the guards at the university gate as I left and then returned from a 5-km run in the neighborhood. And I said hello to two of my students I happened to pass in the science building. That was it. When Doreen is traveling, a not infrequent occurrence, Sundays at home are often solitary as well. So something about the rhythm and quietness of the day reminded me of home.

Perhaps it was the weather. In the early afternoon the grey skies darkened a little and there was a steady rain for an hour or two. There was thunder and lightning, but surprisingly little wind. It wasn't a storm by any means. The rain was incongruously gentle given the dramatic thunder. But it was cold, at least by Kigali standards. The temperature dropped to 61, but it felt much colder. I was chilly while I read on the balcony, but I delayed putting on another layer, since being a little cold was making me pleasantly nostalgic for home.

It was a nice enough weekend, but not as productive as I had hoped. Saturday I went to dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant. I had some good eggplant under a thin crescent moon, fuzzed out in the cloudy Kigali sky. This upcoming week is the first of the two-week exam period here. All of my exams are in the second week, so I my week is pleasantly unscheduled. I have one meeting with my Statistical Physics students, but other than that my week is open. I need to focus and use the time wisely. There is a lot of stuff I want to get done, including prepping for next semester's classes.

Things move along here. Things are sometimes absurd, sometimes annoying, most of the time just fine, and sometimes things just don't make sense. As an example of the latter, a few days ago someone came and changed all the bulbs in the ceiling fixtures in the upper hallway. I don't know why this happened, since the bulbs seemed fine to me, and almost nobody spends time in the hallway. But the hallway is now blindingly bright. It might be the most well-lit space in all of Kigali. Seriously. I can't think of any place brighter except for Nakumatt, the big grocery/department store downtown. Our kitchen, however, could use some new high-power bulbs. It's a little dark in the kitchen at night. And people actually use the kitchen. To cook and stuff. But no new lights for the kitchen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

General Physics

One of the classes I taught this semester is Phy 3114, General Physics. This class is taken by all first-year students in Applied Biology, Applied Chemistry, and Food Science & Technology. There were 195 students in the class. I gave a two-hour lecture once a week in a large lecture hall. There was also a weekly two-hour "tutorial" session. The students were divided by major, so each tutorial session had only around 60 students. I didn't do the tutorials; other instructors led them. Once a week there was a five-hour lab session. We divided the class into eight groups of approximately 25. Each week we did a 1.25 hour lab with four of the groups. Over the term each student did four labs.
The lectures were held in an auditorium that seats around 400. Above is a picture I took of the room before the last class while students were still filing in. Typically the room ends up around half fill. Attendance was low on this day, however, perhaps since it was the last day of the term. I stand on the stage and write in large letters on the two small blackboards. The first half of the term there was only one blackboard in the room, which posed a bit of a challenge. I was happy when the second blackboard appeared.
This picture was taken from the front of the classroom--i.e., onstage---right before I ended the last lecture. One of the blackboards is just visible on the left of the picture. I would guess that only 75% of the students were there that day. Usually the front part of the class is more densely packed.

Teaching General Physics was incredibly challenging. It is hard to teach 190 students. It is impossible to get to know so many students individually, so the class had more of an impersonal feel than I would have liked. Another instructor and I shared grading responsibilities, but grading still took an incredible amount of time. I am not looking forward to grading the finals.

There were other challenges, too. Most of the students do not have good English skills. This is not their fault. They simply don't have much experience learning in English. Rwanda technically switched from French to English instruction in high schools and higher education several years ago. But such a transformation does not happen overnight. My sense is that my general physics students have learned in high school in a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English, and French. They certainly haven't had a foreign instructor with an American accent before.

I am impressed with how the students seemed undeterred by this. By and large, they kept coming to class. There were a handful who consistently asked good and helpful questions. I think their comprehension improved over the eleven weeks, and I also think I got a little better at figuring out how to make myself understood. They never exactly laughed at my jokes. Humor is probably one of the hardest things to comprehend in an unfamiliar language. But I was able to get them to laugh with/at me, as I acted out physics scenarios, pushing on imaginary boxes, kicking things across the stage, throwing erasers, and so on. When I drew a stick figure of a lion (it was part of an analogy to explain surface tension) it led to much laughter and a smattering of applause.

My sense is that the students' preparation is uneven. Most have had quite a bit of mathematics---more than the typical U.S. student. But their problem-solving skills are not strong. I think students do a great deal of rote learning here. On the midterm I asked them to solve some problems they hadn't seen before. The students did not do well. I may have mis-calculated and made things too difficult. I suspect that many students had never been asked to do something like that on a test before.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the course was that I felt there was just no way to convey to students the awesomeness and fun of science. In part this is because of the language barrier; it was just too difficult to explain certain things. But also the format of the course---almost 200 people in one room for just two hours ever week, needing to get through a large list of topics---leaves little opportunity for fun or exploration. I hope that at some time during their careers at KIST my General Physics students get a sense of how fun and interesting science can be.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Trajectory of a Thursday

I stayed up late the night before, skype-chatting with Doreen as she took the bus to Boston on her way to Kuala Lumpur via Boston, New York and Seoul. Kigali is seven hours ahead of the east coast of the US. So when I was chatting with her past midnight here it was early evening there.

I awoke Thursday morning, and as usual I made a cup of strong coffee downstairs and took it up to my balcony. I turned on the computer and checked mail and ate my breakfast. Breakfasts here are either plain yogurt, or one or two rolls with butter. Today was a roll day. They weren't bad. I bought them the evening before at Nakumatt downtown. Tomorrow I will also have rolls, but they won't be as fresh. Sometimes on yogurt days I put a spoonful of jam in the yogurt. Sometimes I don't. It depends on my mood.

It was cool and gloomy this morning. It was probably cold for Rwandans, but I liked it. It was cloudy and dark, almost like it was twilight. The skies continued to darken. It started to rain. It got cooler and darker. The rain intensity increased. And increased some more. Soon sheets of rain were falling from the sky. The sound of the rain on my metal roof and the metal roofs in the neighborhood was intense. The drainage gullies around the house quickly filled to overflowing.

I had long since retreated inside. It was too wet on the balcony. It was dark inside. The air was cool, and the sound of the rain echoed. I watched the rain fall and did some work. I enjoyed the dark, rainy, ambiance. But then I realized that the roof was leaking a little. Onto my bed. I quickly put a towel where the water dripping. I used a lavender-colored towel with teddy bears on it that I bought here a few months ago. I like it.

I then went downstairs to get a pot to catch the water. I discovered that the hallway on the second floor was covered with water. I think it had blown in under a door from one of the balconies. I'm not sure. The guest house has cement floors, so water is not a big deal. I suspect it is a common occurrence.

The rain eventually stopped. I had some yogurt (with jam) for lunch, and went to my office. It is "revision week" here. In practice, this seems to be the time when students spend time checking their scores, arguing for more points, and mysteriously producing homework assignments that they hadn't handed in earlier in the term. I feel like I spent a few hours getting lied to by a succession of students. One case was particularly egregious; he produced an impressive string of mistruths. I took no pleasure in pointing them out to him.

It is one thing to copy over someone's written work. I suppose it is possible that in the act of copying one might learn something. But taking a series of lab assignments (written up as a word document), and then simply deleting your friend's name and adding yours, does not strike me as a way to learn anything. This seems to be how many students get by. It is frustrating, and I don't like being lied to. But it also seems to be a fairly standard practice here. Students stick together. Failing can have bad consequences and I think makes all students uncomfortable. And then there is the fact that many students, through little or no fault of their own, simply may not have the background to complete the degree program they have been admitted to. So if a lot of students get low but passing grades, maybe this is a less awkward outcome than the alternative. I don't know. I am trying to go with the flow and figure out how things are done here.

In any event, the afternoon was not entirely filled with less-than-believable stories about suddenly discovered lab assignments. I also talked to some students who had come by with good questions on some of the review problems I assigned. I got some other work done as well. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun came out after all the rain. It was cool and there were purple-grey clouds in the sky.

A little before six I got an email from my copy-editor at Oxford, the main thrust of which was that almost all the contractions in my book had to do. No "I'm", "let's", "I'll", "don't", etc. All too informal for Oxford. It is probably good advice, although I'll also be sad to see them go. Removing them from the draft will be one of my many final editing tasks to look forward to in the next month.

I finally extracted myself from the office and returned to my room. I read for a little bit and then met two people for dinner. They are both professors from the UK who are here for two weeks lecturing in a new masters in traffic engineering program. I like them both a lot. They are interesting, smart, and I enjoy sharing perspectives on education and scholarship in Rwanda, the UK, and elsewhere. We had an excellent Indian meal at a very pleasant restaurant. Sadly, the two Brits are leaving on Saturday.

I am now again on my balcony. There is a puddle of water from all the rain in the morning. I have just been emailing with Doreen who is now in Seoul---seven hours later than me. It is a typically cool Kigali evening. Crickets chirp and the lights on the hills twinkle. I am tired. I will soon go inside, do some reading, and go to sleep. Tomorrow I will have rolls for breakfast.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Crickets and Mondays

My internet connection has been spotty the last few days. Apparently there is a problem with an undersea cable between Djibouti and Port Sudan. Hard to imagine this will get fixed anytime soon. Nevertheless, the connection is still pretty decent. It is hard to stream video, but most everything else still works, albeit at reduced speeds.

Last night I was skyping with Doreen. As usual, I was on my balcony. Crickets were loudly serenading me. I could hear an echo of the crickets coming back to me via skype. The delay was about four seconds. It was slightly distracting. And then I stopped and thought about it. The sound of a cricket chirping in Kigali is picked up by my microphone. It travels approximately 11,000 km to my home in Maine. The sound is played on Doreen's speakers. Doreen's microphone picks up the cricket sounds and transmits it to me, back in Kigali 11,000 km away. The entire process took around 4 seconds. So the signal traveled at 5500 km/s, or about 1.8 % of the speed of light. This is difficult to fathom.

In other Kigali news, I seem to be having a string of bad Mondays. Today hasn't been as bad as a few previous Mondays, but it has still been somewhat annoying. I've done a lot of work the last two days, the majority of which seems pointless. I have done lots of grading of labs and homework assignments the last few days. More than three quarters of my general physics students still do not know the difference between precision and accuracy. It is clear that they haven't encountered these ideas before, and that the language barrier does not help.

I would estimate that around half of my computational physics students do essentially no work on their own, but instead get solutions to problems from other students. This is a common practice here and is not necessarily viewed as dishonest by everyone. I will structure things differently next term to minimize this. (There will be a lot more quizzes and less homework. I don't prefer teaching this way, but I don't see that I have a choice.)

A highlight of the day was a tasty, quick Indian meal for dinner. I was going to cook at home, but the kitchen was in heavy use so I zipped downtown and had a nice veg thali for a little over five dollars. It was definitely worth it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


I'm done! Well, not really. But I taught my last class of the term today. Next week is a "revision week," when students prepare for their exams. Then there are two weeks of exams. Then there's a two-week break/marking period. So while I have a lot of work to do the next five weeks still---I'm teaching around 240 total students this term, so grading is no small task---I actually feel like I have time to do it.

I will have time for some other work, too. I hope to digest and process some thoughts and observations and post some more in-depth entries on this blog. If there is anything you particularly want me to write about, let me know in the comments and maybe I'll be able to do so.

As usual, I am writing this from my balcony. It is pleasant and there is a light breeze from the south. Crickets and other chirping insects predominate the soundscape, but I hear a faint radio, some distant cars, and the murmerings of students as they study outside the science building.

I am exhausted, but mostly in a good way. It has been a long and, at times, difficult eleven weeks. I survived. Teaching generally went well, although some things went a lot better than others. I will make a few adjustments next semester. I will also only have 72 total students. This is still a lot, but it's a lot better than 240.

I went for a hilly run in early evening, and it was a bit of a struggle. I then went to my favorite Chinese restaurant and had some great spicy tofu. It was very spicy---more spicy than anything I've eaten in quite a while. I had a very cold beer. The coldness partially makes up for the beer's mediocrity. And they brought me Chinese-style peanuts, which I take pleasure in eating with chopsticks. Eating peanuts with chopsticks requires focus and a gentle touch. It is almost meditative. I only dropped one the entire meal.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Words for the Day

Invigilator. This is the term used here for exam proctors: people who keep watch over students while an exam is ongoing to ensure that they don't cheat. I gather that this is a British term. I had never heard of it before. I will be the main invigilator for my exams. I may have a second invigilator assigned to my exams as well. It is unclear if I will be a secondary invigilator for another staff member, but if asked, I will serve.

Dolorimeter. This is an instrument used to measure pain threshold. I found mention of it when I was looking through an intro physics text. The dolorimeter I read about exerts a pressure on ones skin. (It was an end-of-chapter exercise in a chapter about pressure.) Apparently there are other types of dolorimeters, as well.

The root of the term is the Latin word dolor (doloris), whose first definition is pain, ache, or hurt. The second definition is grief, sorrow, or anguish. (Why do people name their daughters Dolores?) Anyway, it was the second definition that came to mind when I first saw the physics problem: I imagined a device capable of measuring someones sadness.

Miscellaneous Updates and Things

Sunday night. I sit on my balcony, finishing a Kenyan beer. I will go to sleep soon. The lights in the science building are off, so there is a black void in my vista where usually there are lights from the stairwells and the ground-level rooms, which students often use for nighttime studying.

The weather is slowly starting to change. The rains are not yet back, but I sense that they are immanent. Wednesday it rained lightly for a few minutes in the morning. It did the same today, and I heard peals of distant thunder in the afternoon.

There is one week of classes left. It is hard to believe the term is almost over. I think classes are ending up pretty well. I am a little behind in Statistical Physics. The other two are right on track. I worry about my General Physics students, however. They did by and large quite poorly on their midterm exam. I think they are not used to an exam on which they have to solve problems they haven't seen before. I hope they are not too disheartened by their scores.

This week I went for two excellent runs. They were neither long nor fast, but by my standards they were quite good. In my run on Tuesday I ended up running for a few miles with a guy who graduated from KIST a few years ago. We both pushed each other, especially as we were running up a long hill. It was the best run I've had in a very long time.

Today I played ultimate frisbee for the first time in Kigali. It was a fun game, and I hope to make it a part of my regular routine. I hadn't gone before since I had been super busy and also pretty sick for a while. But my workload, while still intense, has lightened some and my health is back, so I'm looking forward to being more active.

My main mode of transport is taking taxi motos. These are small motorcycles that zip around the city. It is not the safest form of transport, but so far it hasn't been too frightening. Twice I have been on motos that ran out of gas. I gather that this is a not unusual occurrence. Thursday I was on a short moto ride into town and I noticed that the driver was eating corn on the cob. While driving.

It is later than I want it to be. I should wind down and get to sleep. A big week of work lies ahead.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I am Mulder. I am Scully

Warning: This post is deliberately somewhat oblique. It might not make complete sense, especially if you are unfamiliar with the X-files.

The last 4-5 weeks have been weird. Hard-to-describe weird. But yesterday right before I went for a run, something clicked and I have a new way of thinking about what is going on: I am in an X-files episode. Perhaps more than one episode. There has been a somewhat grisly medical mystery that has been solved by science. There are aliens, of a sort, although they are leaving the scene. And there is mystery, intrigue, and shifting and uncertain alliances.

The medical mystery was debilitating and uncomfortable. The initial mystery was solved, but the solution was false. The malady returned in force, in a way that contradicted the original diagnosis. More doctors, and science soon triumphed. It was a highly toxic little bug. Well known to science---and to East Africans---but not well known to me. And extremely toxic.

Now I am in the midst of a different and trickier sort of intrigue. This much is known. My department chair, a friend and much-admired colleague, resigned Monday morning. By Tuesday he was back home in Kenya. The same morning the head of Chemistry resigned as well. What is not fully known is why they left. And will anyone else leave? I sense tension and shifting alliances. I have several informants. Something is going on, that's sure. I am, at most, a very minor player in what is unfolding. But it will be interesting.

Mulder had Scully, and Scully had Mulder. But I am alone here. So I must be both. Mulder brought intuition and instinct to the partnership. Scully, science and rationality. As often pointed out, one of the interesting things about the duo is that Scully possesses the traits that are typically thought of as masculine, whereas Mulder's traits are perhaps gendered feminine. Regardless, the two make a good combination.

So I must try to summon up the best of Mulder and Scully to continue to navigate unknown and possibly turbulent waters. I have survived the mysterious toxic insects. And I will, of course, survive whatever is to come. But a combination of intuition and rationality will likely serve me well in the months ahead.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Clouds but no rain

My main activity the last few days has been grading. I've graded about 140 exams. I have almost as many yet to go. So there is not much exciting to report from the weekend. There will probably not be much exciting to report from the week.

The weather the last month or so has been dry. I don't think it's rained since early January. It has also been unusually hot. Highs have been in the upper 80's and perhaps occasionally it has hit 90. Rwandans have been commenting on the unusual heat. It hasn't been oppressive or terrible, but in the mid-afternoon sun it is pretty intense. The air has been fairly dusty and hazy, and the vibrancy of the greenery has been turned down a few notches.

The last few weeks have reminded me of June in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are often clouds in the sky. Sometimes big clouds that surely have rain in them. They slide across the city in the afternoon, providing some shade, but they refuse to give up their rain. It is hard not to look longingly at them, and also resent them a little for not providing any water. It will be nice when the rains return. They help cool things off and they keep the dust down.

There are just two weeks to go in the term. I have a mind-boggling amount of work to do -- mostly grading -- in the next two weeks. I am choosing (most of the time) to view it as humorous and slightly absurd, as opposed to annoying or soul-crushing. Nevertheless, it is a bit of a grind, to say the least.

It is a little after 1:30, and as usual I am writing this from my balcony. A dog is yapping incessantly a few blocks away, and his yelps are met by other yelps, further in the distance. A radio is playing faintly over by the science building. A new dog, back to my right, just joined the dog chorus. Fortunately they aren't very loud. A loud plane just took off from the airport several miles to the east. It fades rapidly and the sounds of the dogs and crickets re-emerge.