Fiction vs Non Fiction – 83

For the last couple of years, I have been very good at making time to read. I have read around 40 books in the last year and a half, 95 % of which are non-fiction. When I started reading voraciously, I really enjoyed it; however, I have found that with non-fiction there are diminishing returns as a lot of material is repeated in slightly different ways.

Most of us are creatures of habit, and tend to read about things we enjoy. The problem with this is that over-time you end up reading the same things over and over. I tend to only read around science and finance, with the occasional biography thrown in. Whenever I have tried to read fiction It always becomes an endurance challenge rather than a pleasure.

The books never seem to capture me; I tend to resent them whilst reading them, and I always think that I could be doing something more productive with my time. I persevere with it because it seems that everyone else loves reading fiction and maybe I could enrich my education by reading some decent books.

So far, with the exception of George Orwell’s 1984 that I listened to the audiobook of, I have not found this to be the case. For me, non-fiction is infinitely more valuable. However, I didn’t get to where I am today by giving up so easily. I have decided to give the classics a shot. Partly because they should be good, and partly because they are feely available, and therefore, only a loss of time if I hate them.

There are tons of sites for free, old books if you care to use google, but the one I have used is https://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/. I have downloaded a selection and put them on my kindle.

I started with Ulysses by James Joyce. I must admit that I have got sixty pages in and I hate it. The prose is written in such a way that I cannot believe anyone is enjoying it. The sentences are so verbose that it seems like the author is mocking me. It truly is the stuff of David Foster-Wallace’s wet dream.

I have now switched to ‘A tale of two cities’ by Charles Dickens – hopefully this will be more ‘my kind of thing’. I do not have any criteria for how I am selecting these classics, so feel free to recommend some. I guess my current strategy is to go with the ones I have heard of.

I realise that there is a very good chance that those who are reading this are writers of fiction, so to you I ask: why?

Why do you read/write fiction. For me, reading is a pursuit of knowledge, it is an activity that I have to put effort into to achieve. I wouldn’t say it was something I do to relax as it actually requires a lot of time and effort. Time and effort that I could be using to learn a new skill.

I cannot read before bed if I want to actually follow what the author is saying; at the end of the day I am usually far to tired to follow a story, so I normally do my reading first thing in the morning with a coffee. It is kind of like a warm-up for the rest of the day.

At the moment, other than 1984, I am not sure I could recommend any work of fiction over a non-fiction title.

If you had one book to recommend to convert someone like me to the world of fiction what would it be?

I read a lot as is required by my studies and I have to admit that from what I have read so far, the technical, dry, plotless manuscripts that make up scientific literature rate higher than the works of fiction I have read over the last few years.

Maybe I am just wired differently?

It’s not what you know… – 82

Writing early in the morning for a change. Usually, I am too groggy to write in the morning, but for some reason, I have woke early and feel primed for writing, so here I am.

It is the first week of data collection for a new trial; for me, this is where my free-time gets absorbed as I have to take measurements every 48 hours. The effect of this is that I have to work on Sundays for the next four weeks. It is not too arduous of a task as I would still rather do this than work a regular job. I just have to be more tactical with the activities I do over the one full day I have off.

The majority of the work during the first month of my trial is taking and editing images. I compare the changes In the colour of leaves over time so that we can pick up signs of senescence and degradation before it is perceptible to the human eye. This is easy in theory, but is very time-consuming in practice; with each image, there is a photographic standard of different colours. Each image has slight fluctuations in its colour, not perceptible to the eye in most cases, but still there. I have to go through all the images and adjust them so that the colour is captured the same in each image, which is a significant time sink. However, it is essential if you want to compare the colour accurately.

So far, it is one of the aspects of Image Analysis that I have not managed to automate, if anyone has any tips in this regard I am all ears. Manually editing each image in rawtherapee is quite the chore.

I joined a new club this week, one of the benefits of being at a University is that there is a club or society for anything you can imagine. There is even a lock picking society!

I joined the coding club for my school. I have been learning to code for several years now; initially, I decided to learn to code as a potentially useful skill that would look good on an application form, but it has become much more than that for me now. I am genuinely developing a passion for it, and If I had my time again, I think I would go down the computer science route.

I am hoping that being part of this club will provide new learning opportunities that would be difficult to do on my own. I went to the first meeting, and it was immediately positive. I met a couple of researchers that had built a robot to take images of their work; the only problem they had is they hadn’t figured out how to analyse the images, seeing as I have become pretty good at this an immediate connection was formed and they offered me the use of the robot! It is early days yet, and I can’t think of what I would use the robot for, but I will try my best to manufacture a reason as this can’t be missed!

I consistently dismiss networking as something I should be doing, but every time I engage in, it pays dividends. I would say that it is probably one of the most useful things that can be done with my time, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. As the old saying goes: “it is not what you know, but who you know”. Unfortunately, I find this to be all too true!

I guess the skill is learning which people are the best to connect with, and then turning up.

Pitching to investors – 81

Despite my best efforts to create balance in my life, it has been a slightly rough week. It has been a week where I spent a lot of the time worrying; however, as is the way, the balance was restored at the end of the week when I had a couple of good meetings and phone calls.

Last week I wrote about how I was going to be going to a networking/training event, and I wondered aloud what my feelings were with regards to the point of the event. If I recall correctly, I said something like: ‘It is just an opportunity for students to complain about their studies and for the company to justify their funding’.

I was pleasantly and thoroughly wrong on this count. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. This could not be more apt for my experience with this training event. Last year it did seem pointless, and this jaded my opinion of the event; this year there was a new approach from the company that was running it, and it was excellent.

We were divided into teams of around six people, and the ultimate goal was to put a presentation together and pitch to a panel of investors so that we could secure grant money – kind of like Dragons Den (I think it is called shark tank in the US?).

For those that don’t know, applying for funding is a significant part of an established scientists job – I assume other industries have the same sort of issue.

We had three instructors helping us put together the presentation; one of the presenters was someone who already had their PhD and had also started their own biochem company. The other two were highly knowledgeable business people that were the ones who give out the grants.

We had to make a business case for conducting some research into ways to reduce water consumption in our imaginary farm. It was based on a real problem that is a major concern in the salad industry. Global warming.

Overall it was a significant improvement over the last time, and to top it off, our group won! It may surprise you, but this is the first time I have ever won anything in academia – that I can remember.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to arrange samples to be sent out to me. Of all the things I do, arranging samples to be delivered is the most anxiety-inducing. Logistics is something I never want to be involved with. It is probably because it is mostly out of my control, and the only way to prepare for potential slip-ups is by assigning a wide margin of error, which is inefficient.

I have been calling my contact for two weeks, and they would not pick up their phone. This was anxiety-inducing as I have a strict window of time to run this trial. The trial takes four-weeks, and I have four weeks until I leave for the Czech-republic for a holiday/conference. So, if it arrives a week late, I will not be able to run the trial and will have five weeks of downtime. This is why I have been a bit more on edge than usual.

However, unbeknownst to me, the supplier I had been calling hadn’t ignored my calls he just didn’t bother responding. So the preparations were being made to deliver my samples, I just wasn’t informed.

One of the most significant differences between academia and Industry is how people communicate. In academia, everyone uses email; the phones remain silent! Whereas, in my experience, those in Industry will only speak to you if you give them a phone call.

When I finally managed to speak to my supplier and he told me it was all taken care of it was a huge relief. Furthermore, I managed to find out the correct statistical technique for some data I have been sitting on and not knowing what to do with. This gave me immense satisfaction because it meant that I could progress quite a bit of work. So, after a tense few days at the start of the week, it all came good, and the mean state of well-being was restored.

Everything seems to work out fine in the end, but thanks to the complexities of evolution we are left over with these unnecessary hormonal triggers.

Cycle complete – 80

I have been writing about my adventures long enough now for events to come around again. On Monday I will be travelling to Birmingham to attend an event for PhD students. It is run by a company called the Knowledge Transfer Network whose motivation for holding this event I cannot quite grasp.

I think the Government has set up a fund for the translation of research to profit; businesses have tendered for a portion of this fund to provide a service where academia and Industry come together. Presumably, as part of acquiring funding for my project, the people who put it together stipulated that the students who receive funding would attend these two-day workshops every year.

From experience, the training at these events is relatively weak, and the primary outcome seems to be students getting drunk and complaining about their studies. As someone who still remembers what it was like to work in a warehouse, I am not one for complaining. These events, for me, tend to be a bit of a distraction as I spend most of the time listening to people complaining about their projects whilst trying to hold back saying something sanctimonious like “poor you, are your diamond shoes too tight?”

Don’t get me wrong; I will still try and get the most from this opportunity, but I have low expectations going in.

I ventured out of my house last night as I was invited to a wine and cheese evening. My immediate reaction upon being invited was one of apathy. However, I spent some time thinking about it and decided to go anyway; I am not yet ready to set aside my ego and become the hermit I am destined to be. It’s not that I am bad in social situations, evidenced by the fact that I do get invited to things, its just that I have no natural urge to want to attend.
This has been a constant throughout my life, to be honest; I can take or leave social-interactions. I much prefer listening to other peoples stories than telling my own – verbally at least.

Before I entered academia, I had a very warped view of how academics interacted. I assumed that at a wine and cheese evening that only contained academics the conversation would be high brow. It is probably television that has given me that opinion.

The reality is academics are people, and people tend to talk about the same type of things; crazy stories from their younger years, bitching about someone who isn’t present (and therefore can’t defend themselves), and all sorts of ‘normal’ subjects. I am sure if I spent the night in prison the same conversation patterns would appear.

I was naive to think that this specific group of people would somehow be different from the rest of humanity. There are differences, and it is not hard to see them, but the overarching themes of the conversation were generic.

In other news, LinkedIn came through for me for the first time since I signed up. I needed to find out some information about a piece of equipment we used in a study. I had previously worked with someone who works for the company that the equipment belonged to, and we are connected on LinkedIn. I gave her a call and not only found the information I was looking for, but she also said that I should contact her when I finish my studies as she would have a job for me!

Of all the aspects of life I like to ignore, networking seems to have the best return on investment.

If you had a secondary skill that you could immediately be better at what would it be?

Statisfaction -79

Here we are another week closer to heat death of the universe. I didn’t really know how to start this piece so I just wrote down the first thing that came to my head that wasn’t complete blogger cliché.

I have spent a lot of time this morning reading blogs about statistics and furiously making notes. You know you’re a geek when you like star-wars, even though 90% of it is garbage, but the true nerd spends their weekends learning the intricacies of some obscure realm of mathematics.

The motivation for pre-occupation with statistics this weekend is because of a course I attended on Thursday. At my university, students on the PhD program have to attended a certain amount of ‘development courses’. In the 1st year I had to attend five courses – I actually attended ten because who doesn’t like free education. In the second year, which I am now in, you have to attend four. I tend to gravitate to anything technical when it comes to these courses, rather than courses such as ‘improve your communication skills.

The course I was on was about using the R-language to produce graphics; it was a full-day course, which is unusual. It was one of those times where the passion for the subject from the statistician running the course forced itself upon you. I was certainly inspired; hence my morning, and most of Friday, learning more about the subject.

Statistics, at least for me, is one of those topics where the information does not stick around in the brain very easily, so each time I come to analyse some data I have to spend a decent amount of time re-learning some of the concepts. I have produced a large document for myself of the main principles, so that I don’t have to start from square one each time. I imagine that this document will be close to my final thesis in terms of usefulness!

I had a bit of a transport related drama this week. My bike broke. I was given the bike so I did not have much concern for the bike itself; my bigger concern was how I was going to get to the university. I got a quote of £75 pounds to repair the bike, and they said that they couldn’t do it for two weeks – this would be very inconvenient. I decided to buy a new bike rather than fixing up, what I can only describe as the, worst bike I have ever owned.

After days of looking at reviews of bikes online I could not decide how much I should spend for what is essentially my commuting vehicle. Ideally I would find something dirt cheap online, but to my surprise I couldn’t find anything. “Where is a stolen bike when you need one” is what I thought to myself.

Luckily, after a long and sweaty walk to campus a serendipitous moment occurred. A cycling charity happened to be on campus offering free services of peoples bikes. They also had bikes for sale that they had refurbished. After £45 had been handed over I now am in possession of an equally terrible, but functional new bike. The utilitarian wins again!

Back to it – 78

Back after the Easter break with a new low in motivation.

A few weeks ago I booked a machine for this week without paying any attention to the fact that I would not be able to come in and use it on Monday as it is a holiday. Because of this lack of foresight, I have had to extend my booking over the weekend so that I can fit all my samples in.

I am analysing sugars derived from Iceberg-lettuce over a time period of one month. In theory, as the leaves continue to metabolise, the sugars will decrease. From a scientific point of view, this might be a potential marker for senescence and degradation which is why I am monitoring it. For the number of samples I have I am expecting it to take around four days to run them all. To clean the machine and various components a day either side is required. Providing the machine doesn’t breakdown, which is relatively common with expensive scientific equipment in my experience; I should be done by Sunday.

This is how a PhD differs from a conventional job. There is no consistency in the hours of which you will work. It is one of those “when it’s done kind of an occupation”. It is a positive or negative depending on your perspective, and it is lifestyle factors such as this as to why many people drop-out. All the people I know who have dropped out of their studies have done it for reasons related to the lifestyle of the studentship rather than the difficulty of the subject matter. When I started, I had wrongly presumed that the complexity of the study would be the main reason for someone to stop their studies.

One task that I have thrown myself at this week is clearing out my “to read” folder. It is a folder full of papers that I think might be useful, but not helpful enough to read at the time of discovery. In the past, I would only read papers when I needed them for a reference, or if I did read them for general knowledge, I would not make notes.
About six months ago I got my act together on this and started taking and saving notes from papers I have read while archiving them in a reference generator.

I assume writers also have this problem when you’re gathering research for your piece.

How do you collect and organise your notes?

I use Zotero which is a free reference / archiving software. I chose this program because it runs on Linux, but I know many programs fulfil the same function, such as Mendeley, EndNote (which is the one my University recommends) and citethisforme.

Anyway, I have gone through and read about half of this folder, and feel quite good about it. I have finally got around to a chore I have been putting off all year, like throwing out all those clothes I no longer wear.

This advancement in the management of my notes and references is an example of advice I got at the start, which I then ignored and ended up enacting myself months later to my detriment. This happens a lot and is one of the main problems with advice. I remember someone who had just completed their PhD telling me to “write up papers as you go along, you won’t, but I recommend you do”. They were correct: I haven’t.

Advice is difficult to take and very easy to give. This is the main problem with advice as I see it. What other people should do is always crystal clear; it seems to be very easy to analyse anything other than your situation.

Perhaps this is the basis for Richard Feynman quote ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool’.

A cabin in the woods – 76

I have a lot to talk about this week! It is one of those occasions where the thoughts about what I am going to write about have been whirring around my mind for the last few hours. The majority of the time this is not the case, and I don’t know what I am going to write about until I sit down. Does anyone else write like this?

The reason I have something to talk about this week is that I have been on holiday! I have spent a week in a cabin in the woods in Snowdonia national park with my family and partners. We were very fortunate with our break in that the tourist season had not started yet and the weather was perfect – for me, not too hot, but sunny. Also, we had a hot-tub; which is a vital piece of equipment after a long day hiking.

Snowdon… with snow. Image by RuthLeonardWilliams from Pixabay


I want to continue on last weeks idea of holidays/vacations and their importance in preventing burn-out. There was one important idea that I overlooked when I wrote that piece; I overlooked the possibility of me not wanting to return!

Motivationally speaking, not wanting to return from holiday is probably a sign that the thing you’re going back to isn’t at the top of the list of things you want to do. I would much rather be climbing mountains and exploring the beautiful landscape in Snowdonia than doing lab-work in a repetitively dull, but convenient, minor-metropolis.

Snowdonia national park. Image by Roman Grac from Pixabay

Given what I have just said, I pose the following question: Can a holiday/vacation be a bad thing?

Before this week I would have thought that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives; however, if you’re unconsciously taking a break to get away from the toil of your daily life, then there may be an argument to be made that a break is not what you need. ‘Papering over the cracks’ is a phrase that comes to mind.

I remember that last week I was talking about how I had organised things so that when I come back, I can hit the ground running. I had filled my diary so that I would jump straight back into my work as if nothing had happened. This seemed, at the time, like the optimal thing to do; however, on reflection, it just made feel as if I wanted to return even less as I had a mountain of work to return to. Maybe it would have been better to have a much gentler return to work. I could have given myself a nice light workload to return to, but I have set things up so that I am jumping in mid-flow.

What we have here folks is the classic illustration of the yin and yang, the up and down, positive and negative, swings and roundabouts etcetera.

Upon arriving home, I have spent a considerable amount of time on ‘general blog maintenance’. I have been updating broken links and correcting any errors that have been pointed out by you lovely people. I have also spent some time seeking out new blogs that I can take inspiration from. It has been a relatively long time since I gave my blog some TLC, so I am going to dedicate this weekend to improve my blog.

I want to improve my site from a visual perspective, so if you have any tips, please comment below!

I am going for a minimalist look with a site that is as easy to navigate as possible.

How much time do you spend on improving your product blog?