Oct 2, 2013

Terence’s Stuff: Travel

I travel a lot. Too much, says my wife. Far too much. Of course I’m speaking of work-related, not recreational travel. Conferences, workshops, seminars, meetings. Usually I present something, but not always. Sometimes I just listen, at other times I take part in discussions.

Why do I do it? For a start, I regard saying yes to invitations as something that goes with my job. As a young mathematician and statistician, I benefited enormously from direct personal interaction with senior people in maths and stats who made the long journey to Australia from the UK, USA or Europe. These included I.J. Good, M.H. Stone, S. MacLane, A.G. Kurosh and B.V. Gnedenko. Discussions with some of these people quite literally changed my career. With this history, how can I refuse – how can I be “too busy” to accept an invitation to visit and speak somewhere, because it is too far away? Similarly, I think an appropriate level of participation in conferences is something we should see as part of our job. If our colleagues, or our professional society, go to the trouble of organizing a meeting in our (sub-) field, isn’t it reasonable to expect that we should be interested in participating? I hope so. We’ll learn something, while well-attended meetings are usually better than poorly attended ones. Everyone benefits.

A second reason for travel is to tell people what we—my students, postdocs and collaborators and myself—are up to. I am enough of a (statistical) evangelist to want to spread our word, that is, to tell people about the things we think are important at any given time. Naturally I learn a lot from others when doing so, from their questions and discussions. At times I gain students, postdocs or collaborators on my visits.

The third reason for travelling is to find out what others are up to. I find that the most efficient and enjoyable way to learn what people are doing is to listen to them live and to talk to them face-to-face, not to run through their slides or watch them on YouTube or read their papers when they appear.

Do these reasons for academic travel seem compelling? I hope so. Who am I trying to convince? You guessed!

Of course the actual travel can be anything from a slightly bad dream to a total nightmare. I look forward to the day when teleportation becomes a reality, when we can be “beamed up” to wherever we want to go. Until then, I try to organize things so that my actual travel is as painless as possible. I never check my luggage, always carrying it with me on the plane. This restricts the amount I can take, but removes the headache of delayed or lost luggage. I try to sleep on long flights. I take (physical) books to read during the inevitable dead time, and I try to do everything just as required to avoid clashing with the authorities. I carry no metal or fluids, I remove my belt and shoes and empty my pockets when required, I do my best to fill in all forms correctly, and I declare everything.

This usually works, and so my journeys are usually as uneventful as they are boring. But not always. Chance can intervene, and a small misstep can have real consequences. On my last trip, I had no checked luggage (see above). But after showing my passport and boarding pass at the gate, I found myself entering a small plane for the short trip from the US to Mexico. My bag was too big for the shelf in that plane, and so it had to be tagged and gate-checked. I put on the tag, but needed to put down my passport—which was still in my hand—to rip off the part I had to retain. Two hours later, as we were about to land in Mexico, and I was filling in the entry form for Mexico, I discovered that I didn’t have my passport. It was nowhere to be found, and so I had to present my passportless self to the Mexican immigration authorities. Unsurprisingly, they would not admit me, so back on the plane I went, to return to the US. Fortunately they did admit me, and so I was able to locate my passport, which had turned up not far from where I’d put it down, re-book my flight to Mexico, and go to a hotel for a little sleep before resuming my travel next day.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. Perhaps just that “stuff happens” when travelling, that it’s hard to be perfect. You can be sure that I got some really nice gifts for my wife on this particular trip.

Terry’s (often) leaving, on a jet plane…

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